Bray saves day for 'lucky' Meath
NOT for the first time this year, Meath somehow snatched victory from the jaws of defeat in Navan. And not for the first time in recent times, some errant free-taking from Westmeath let the Royals off the hook.
Paul Bannon's late missed free allowed Meath to steal the two points, a Stephen Bray effort with the last kick of the game securing the spoils. The Athlone man's miscue echoed the now exiled Dessie Dolan's infamous kick against the same opposition that denied them a Leinster championship victory at Croke Park in 2003, although Bannon's attempt was from a trickier angle.
It was the cruellest of defeats for the Lake County and for a distraught Bannon, who had an excellent outing otherwise. Tipped for relegation from Division Two by many, they played second fiddle for long periods early on and trailed by seven points late in the first half but showed remarkable resilience to claw their way back into the game.
Donal O'Donoghue was switched to centre-back from midfield to help shore up the defence while Kieran Gavin got to grips with Joe Sheridan who, but for some wayward shooting, could have had the Royals out of sight at half-time after finding the net with a sublime finish just five minutes in.
Bannon's goal from the penalty spot, which looked like a soft decision in favour of full-forward Paul Greville, kept Westmeath in touch and he hit another two points, including an excellent point from play from way out on the right touchline to see them trail 1-8 to 1-2 at the interval.
Bannon apart, the Westmeath forward line looked toothless, as the self-imposed exile of their two brightest stars -- Dolan and Denis Glennon -- continues. However, the switch of Michael Ennis to the forwards from centre-back was inspired and he landed 1-2 in their second-half charge, while the introduction of Philip Gilsenan added further impetus.
Meath registered just one point in the opening 24 minutes of the second half as Westmeath slowly chipped away at the deficit. Ennis' goal in the 57th minute brought the visitors level and though David Bray re-established Meath's lead, two further Ennis scores put Westmeath ahead for the first time.
Now it was Meath's turn to wobble. David Bray, who hit 0-4 from play, miscued an eminently kickable free. Worse was to come when Jamie Queeney dropped a free short from less than 25 metres out.
Westmeath finally cleared their lines and won a free 30 metres from goal after Shane McAnarney fouled substitute Willie Coyne with the two minutes of injury time almost up. To the left-hand side of the post at the Hospital end, it was a difficult attempt for Bannon, who saw his kick drift wide of the right-hand post.
Donegal official Jimmy White allowed a further kick-out with time all and up and Meath worked the ball down the field for Stephen Bray to split the posts in spectacular fashion and denied Brendan Hackett's side a share of the spoils. The Westmeath manager reckoned a draw might have been a fairer result.
"Do you want the cliché? I'm sick as a parrot," he said. "In the first half, you'd have to say Meath were sharp. They got ahead a couple of times. But I'm happy with the way we played. We came back from being four points down a couple of times.
"I probably felt it could have been a draw, based on the second-half performance. It was a cruel way to lose. It was a big change from a couple of weeks back against Armagh. We've turned a corner. I'm happy that we've definitely turned a corner on the evidence of what we saw there.
"It's a time when a team has been coming to a natural end. That (Leinster title win in 2004) is six years ago. Most of those guys are gone or they're not available. We're in transition. Everyone says that as an excuse. We are in transition. We know we're in transition. Today for me is a huge cause for encouragement.
"The way I look at it is we've four games left. If we take five points from those, that will be our aim. Two wins and a draw -- I think five points will be enough to stay up."
And Hackett, who confirmed that midfielder David Duffy was in good health after been stretchered off in the first half, hinted that he didn't expect a return for Dolan and Glennon to the squad in the future.
"We have what we have. It's an amateur game. They can choose to do whatever. We're just focused on the people who are here. And you saw what those people could do."
Meath boss Eamonn O'Brien went a step further and suggested that Westmeath might have taken the spoils.
"We were lucky to come away with two points. Probably, Westmeath should have won the game. At this level of football, you can take nobody for granted."
SCORERS -- Meath: D Bray 0-5 (0-1f), S Bray 0-4, J Sheridan 1-0, J Queeney 0-2 (0-2f), S Kenny 0-1. Westmeath: P Bannon 1-3 (1-0 pen, 0-2f), M Ennis 1-2, P Greville 0-2 (0-1f), P Gilsenan 0-1.
Meath -- D Lyons; N McKeigue, J Macken, E Harrington; C O'Connor, B Regan, S Kenny; N Crawford, M Ward; A Moyles, J Queeney, O Lewis; D Bray, J Sheridan, S Bray. Subs: N Mooney for Lewis (62), S McAnarney for Kenny (63).
Westmeath -- G Connaughton; F Boyle, K Gavin, J Gaffey; D Harte, M Ennis, D Healy; D O'Donoghue, D Duffy; P Bannon, J Smyth, R Doolan; T Warburton, P Greville, G Hoey. Subs: S Bracken for Duffy (34), G Flanagan for Smyth (h-t), W Murtagh for Doolan (50), P Gilsenan for Warburton (54), W Coyne for Boyle (72).
REF -- J White (Donegal).