Eugene McGee: A match played the way it should be played
Meath taking Dubs on at own game will benefit both sides later in the campaign
Leinster finals when Dublin are playing Meath are arguably the best football occasions in the entire GAA calendar: huge partisan crowds, incredible passion on and off the field and, by and large, real sportsmanship as opposed to the sort of sneaky cheap fouling that has infested the modern game.
That is why more than 54,000 people got such enjoyment from the latest instalment yesterday and why many of the fans were breathless at the finish, despite the decisive winning margin for Dublin.
All the grim foreboding about a mismatch were quickly scotched as Meath, as always, took on Dublin at their own game and rattled the holders a lot more than any of their camp or their followers really expected. In the end it was the superior fitness of the Dubs – built up over several years in most cases – that proved decisive and which allowed them to eventually perform to the high levels that they have shown all year.
For the opening 50 minutes or so, the game was tight, exciting and at times dramatic – as well as being played in an extremely sporting manner.
By then Dublin were a couple of points ahead but, despite the heroics of Meath up to that point, little tell-tale signs of tiredness began to show. And like a prize fighter sensing an opponent's weakness, the Boys in Blue seemed to get renewed energy to go for the jugular and this they did by outscoring Meath 1-6 to 0-2 in the final 22 minutes of the game.
Both teams will have benefited a lot from this clash, but particularly Dublin. This is because they found themselves in territory unfamiliar to them so far in this championship as they were opened up with alarming ease in defence, lost out at midfield in the first half – during which they only scored five times – and got no score at all in the final 15 minutes of that opening period.
The half-time talk by Jim Gavin, therefore, must have been one of his easiest because a lot of his players were badly rattled and needed a calm head to guide them out of the danger zone that Meath had carefully implemented.
In such situations one usually looks for the experienced veterans to provide the inspiration and leadership but this was not the case yesterday, as shown by the fact that players substituted included Cian O'Sullivan, Eoghan O'Gara, Ger Brennan, Bernard Brogan and Diarmuid Connolly.
So, instead, it was down to the young guns to save the day and they were ably led by Paul Mannion and Ciaran Kilkenny, two fabulously talented forwards with razor-sharp reflexes and superb peripheral vision – the qualities that identify only a very select group in Gaelic football over the years.
Experienced Paul Flynn at No 10 was the overseer and mentor of these two starlets and it was their combined efforts that eventually finished off a gallant Meath team. Kilkenny scored two crucial points when the game was very tight in the third quarter and in the final 29 minutes Mannion scored 1-2 to close out any Royals comeback.
But this was no bed of roses for the Dubs and many flaws were exposed which, if not rectified quickly, will deflate the air of invincibility around Gavin's men.
Dublin hit some atrocious wides. Stephen Cluxton hit no fewer than four placed balls wide and the number of free shots hit by Meath players into Cluxton's hands would surely prove more costly against superior forward opposition in the future.
The Royals will be very pleased with this performance because they did the one thing that all Meath football people wanted – they restored the pride in the jersey after a lot of turmoil in recent years.
They played superbly well for three-quarters of the game but simply ran out of steam. And most of all, they paid a high price for mistakes.
Mannion's brilliant goal in the 59th minute came as a result of Graham Reilly dicing with danger as he soloed along the sideline but did not give an obvious pass to a nearby Meath player. Instead he was shouldered fairly out over the line and the resultant Dublin play yielded the goal.
Meath will learn from such things as they move up the National League rankings but there certainly seems to be the guts of a Royal revival, and the forthcoming qualifiers will be intriguing in that regard.