Murphy holds his nerve to reel in Royals
Donegal 1-12 Meath 1-12
DONEGAL maintained their unbeaten run in Ballybofey but only by the skin of their teeth, needing Michael Murphy to provide the dramatic late equaliser with the last kick of the game.
Meath shrugged off losses to Monaghan and Armagh to put the 2012 All-Ireland champions to the pin of their collar and looked to have secured the win when substitute Graham Reilly put them in front with just three minutes remaining.
Donegal kept running at them and peppering their goal, but when substitute Darach O'Connor had a shot off the upright it looked like the Royals were set to take a shock victory.
But, as the clock ran down, Donegal got a free and Murphy heroically slotted the equaliser from close to the sideline.
"It's a sign of the performance that we put in that we are so disappointed that we didn't win it but I'm so proud of our players, they put in a massive performance," said crestfallen Royals manager Mick O'Dowd, whose side pulled out all the stops but lacked the sort of experience that Donegal were able to spring off the bench.
Only a flukey 26th-minute goal from corner-back Frankie McGlynn kept Donegal in touch by half-time.
Meath had raced into an early five-point lead and were still up by two at the break (1-7 to 1-5), which could have been more if they'd taken all their chances.
Immediately on the re-start they quickly pounced on some defensive errors to extend their lead to four again.
But McGuinness reacted smartly, quickly bringing in Neil Gallagher to shore up midfield and schoolboy O'Connor to give them impetus upfront.
Donegal were without Paddy McBrearty (knee injury) but when Ryan McHugh got black-carded after 49 minutes they had Karl Lacey to draft in and that sort of experience helped them grapple back the lead before the hour and eventually share the spoils. For all of Donegal's errors, they had more goal chances, forcing several blocks from the Meath defence.
"We'd have been very disappointed if we didn't get a point because we pushed on hard in the second half and had a number of goal-mouth skirmishes that we were hoping would yield get at least one goal," manager Jim McGuinness said, singling out Christy Toye for special praise.
"The pitch was very heavy and our boys were very flat early on when Meath were very good, so it took us a while get to the pace of the game but they showed a lot of character to get back into it," he added.
After playing such attacking football in the earlier rounds Donegal reverted to old habits and the dreaded blanket defence in the first half but without their trademark swift counter-attack.
They only scored twice in the first 22 minutes and their first point from play came after 26 minutes, so they did well to go in only two down at half-time.
Even when McGlynn's speculative lob ended up in the net they let Meath goal from the next attack, with Mickey Newman expertly adding it to a personal tally that also included one brilliant Maurice Fitz-like curled free from 50m.
O'Dowd said he didn't doubt his side could put it up to Donegal at home. "We're a tight bunch so we're not going to get rattled by a couple of defeats," he said. "We needed to go up another level today and I'm glad they showed they could do that."
Kevin Reilly, with some great support from Mickey Burke and Eoghan Harrington, held Murphy scoreless from play and the Donegal full-forward line to just two points from play.
Bryan Menton and Shane O'Rourke dominated midfield. Andrew Tormey, who had a protective cast on his leg earlier in the week, scored two points from play and Reilly made a difference when he came in.
O'Dowd didn't start Eamon Wallace and Padraic Harnan, who have an U-21 Leinster replay on Wednesday, their third big game in a week, and he joined the ranks of those lambasting the GAA's imbalanced schedule.
"It's unfair on players. We're cramming in U-21 and Sigerson on top of seven (NFL) games in 10 weeks, it's ridiculous," O'Dowd said. "I know it's a complex dilemma and there's different club structures in the counties as well, but we're trying to put too many competitions into such a tight window. I don't have the answer but it needs to be addressed," he stressed.
Scorers – Donegal: M Murphy 0-6fs, F McGlynn 1-0, C McFadden 0-3 (2fs), C Toye 0-2, D Molloy 0-1. Meath: M Newman 1-4 (3fs), A Tormey, D Carroll 0-2 each, G Reilly, E Wallace, B McMahon, S O'Rourke (f) 0-1 each.
Donegal – P Durkan 6; E McGee 6, N McGee 6, F McGlynn 7; R McHugh 7, L McLoone 5, A Thompson 7; R Kavanagh 7, M McElhinney 6; M McHugh 6, C Toye 8, O McNeilis 5; C McFadden 6, M Murphy 7, D Molloy 6. Subs: N Gallagher 8 for Kavanagh (38), D O'Connor 7 for Molloy (38), K Lacey 6 for R McHugh (BC, 49), David Walsh 6 for McNeilis (57).
Meath – P O'Rourke 8; M Burke 8, K Reilly (Capt) 8, E Harrington 8; S Curran 6, D Keogan 6, D Carroll 7; B Menton 7, S O'Rourke 8; A Tormey 7, D Tobin 6, D McDonagh 6; B McMahon 6, S Bray 6, M Newman 8. Subs: G Reilly 8 for Bray (h-t), P Harnan 6 for Tobin (h-t), S Kenny 7 for Curran (52), E Wallace 7 for McMahon (53), M O'Sullivan 5 for Tormey (63), D Bray for Menton (69).
Ref – P Hughes (Armagh).