'It looked like he thought the goals were somewhere else' - Meath boss Andy McEntee on bizarre Louth goal
Meath 0-27 Louth 3-9
When Graham Reilly was made captain by the new Meath management at the beginning of the year, it possibly furrowed a few brows and prompted some quizzical looks. No doubt about his ability to run and score, but would he lead and would he work hard enough?
He passed his first championship test quite emphatically in Parnell Park, rising to the challenge when Louth's persistence manifested in two second-half goals that threw them lifelines at times when Meath looked like they could pull away comfortably.
The brittle confidence of recent years that has yielded so many adverse results threatened to surface after those Louth goals by substitute Ronan Holcroft - as bizarre as you will see - and Conal McKeever. The sense of deja-vu, that another second-half fade was on the cards, was palpable among the 8,000 or so around Parnell Park. They lived dangerously.
But each time the response was just as new manager Andy McEntee would have wanted it with Reilly showing from the front.
He scored seven points in all, all five second-half points in a 17-minute spell after that strange Holcroft goal when he was, quite literally, unplayable.
His pace is now matched by more consistent accuracy and, with the wind at his back, he nailed every second-half shot he took as Meath amassed a points total that is among the highest ever in championship.
"That's what Graham is capable of," said McEntee. "Once he's in the proper condition he's a handful for anybody."
Their attack had pace, movement and created at least five gilt-edged goal chances without taking one. But defensive frailties were evident throughout and Louth could easily have had three more goals.
Paddy O'Rourke blocked Páraic Smith in the opening half, Anthony Williams shot over in a one-to-one with the Meath goalkeeper while O'Rourke batted out a Jim McEneaney effort from the hand just after half-time and just before O'Rourke appeared to lose his bearings as he retreated from a poor short kick-out that found its way to Holcroft, allowing the Louth substitute to kick - albeit tamely - into an empty net.
"It looked to me like he thought the goals were somewhere else," said McEntee afterwards of his goalkeeper.
"It was very strange. I wasn't quite sure. When the Louth man mis-hit the shot and I saw Paddy turning and going away I thought to myself, 'Well, it's obviously going wide' and then the net started to rattle.
"I think he thought it was going wide, he actually thought the goals were to his left, and they were to his right. He (Paddy) probably should have been kicking it long but Paddy, at the same time, pulled off a couple of good saves too. We probably need to look at why he had to pull off a couple of saves as much as anything else."
It briefly gave Louth the lead - 2-6 to 0-11 - after they had trailed by a point at the break (0-10 to 1-6) but Reilly kicked the next point and Meath were five points clear on 58 minutes when another substitute, Conal McKeever, slipped through to force a save out of O'Rourke from point-blank range before converting the rebound for a third goal.
Again Meath responded almost instantly with the impressive Donal Lenihan pointing a free after Cillian O'Sullivan was fouled and substitute Thomas O'Reilly adding a point on his debut. "We needed a reaction to nearly every one of their goals and more often than not it was him (Reilly) that provided it," added McEntee.
From the 48th minute on they outscored Louth by 0-14 to 1-0, bucking the trend of previous fade-outs.
"We did finish strong and that doesn't surprise me, the guys have done an awful lot of work with John Coghlan (strength and conditioning coach). I've sung his praises for long enough at this stage. I have no doubt the fellas have a lot more in their tanks still.
"We're trying to convince fellas that, in the last 10 minutes, we're okay and we can win games and that proved to be today. We looked stronger in a lot of areas in the last 10 minutes."
Against the wind Meath got out in front by 0-8 to 0-4 at one stage but goal chances were spurned and when Reilly surged 60 metres unchecked just before half-time his popped pass for Lenihan was just too high, minutes after Jim McEneaney's penalty conversion at the other end. James Toher, Meath's Christy Ring Cup-winning captain in 2016, was a late call-up for James McEntee who injured a hip in the warm-up, had an impressive first half, scoring four points, two from play. Ronan Jones, starting his first championship game, got into the game too and was one of those who finished strongest.
Louth got decent momentum from the players they brought in, particularly James Califf who landed three points from distance. Bevan Duffy and Anthony Williams were always probing and finding gaps in the Meath defence while Andy McDonnell also gave them energy after his introduction. But Meath made life hard for goalkeeper Craig Lynch's kick-outs, normally one of Louth's biggest assets.
Louth manager Colin Kelly accepted there was a significant gulf in class between the teams.
"They have quality players. They had a bit too much for us today. We gave everything we have, it wasn't good enough but I thought the gulf was obvious," he acknowledged, pointing to the balance between pushing up in search of goals he believed they could get and leaving themselves open to Reilly and company at the back.
"We felt we could score goals. That's probably why we pushed up. At that stage, once you take the decision to commit and go down that route, then it's bail or jail and unfortunately today it was jail.
"There are only so many times you can come here and look to next year, look to next year. Sometimes we have to question ourselves. I have to question myself as a manager, and players have to take a long hard look at themselves as well. Why does this happen? Maybe, you know, are you good enough?"
Louth weren't helped by early yellow cards for two of their full-back line, Padraig Rath and Patrick Reilly, while Kevin Carr was later black carded.
Scorers - Meath: G Reilly 0-7, D Lenihan 0-6 (3fs, 1 45), J Toher (3fs) 0-5, B McMahon, T O'Reilly, R O Coileain all 0-2 each, S Tobin, R Jones, C O'Sullivan all 0-1 each. Louth: J McEnaney 1-2 (1f), R Holcroft, C McKeever 1-0 each, J Califf 0-3 (1f), R Burns 0-2 (2fs), A Williams, B Duffy 0-1 each.
Meath - P O'Rourke; M Burke, C McGill, D Tobin; P Harnan, D Keogan, S McEntee; B Menton, R Jones; J Toher, C O'Sullivan, E Wallace; G Reilly, B McMahon, D Lenihan. Subs: D McQuillan for McGill (30), R O Coileain for S McEntee (52),C O'Brien for Menton inj (55), T O'Reilly for McMahon (59), S Tobin for O'Sullivan (69).
Louth - C Lynch; P Rath, P Reilly, K Carr; L Dullaghan, J Bingham, D Byrne;T Durnin, J Stewart; A Williams, P Smith, B Duffy; J McEnaney, E O'Connor, R Burns. Subs: K Murphy for Rath inj (19), A McDonnell for Byrne (26), R Holcroft for Carr (BC, 29), C McKeever for Dullaghan (h-t), J Califf for Durnin (41), R Moore for Smith (69).
Ref - B Cassidy (Derry).
Game at a glance
Man of the Match: Graham Reilly (Meath). The captain stood up when Meath needed him, leading the response to each goal and accumulating seven points from play in all. Showed great pace and accuracy.
Talking point: Reilly’s performance coupled with Meath scoring 27 points – one of the highest points tallies ever in championship football. However, their defence struggled and the concession of the second goal was quite bizarre, Paddy O’Rourke losing his bearings after a poor kick-out.
Magic moment: Graham Reilly’s scorching 60-metre run to create a goal opportunity just before half-time. The fisted pass for DonalLenihan was lifted too high, though.
Ref watch: In an end-to-end game like this mistakes are inevitable. It looked like Barry Cassidy got the Louth penalty right, but he curiously didn’t award Meath a free thoughafter Louth’s Kevin Carr was black carded.
Match statistics: Wides: Meath 7 (2 first-half), Louth 3 (0). Frees: Meath 22 (12), Louth 14 (6). Yellow Cards: Meath 0, Louth 5 (Patrick Reilly 2, Padraig Rath 10, Ryan Burns 32, Bevan Duffy 34, Paraic Smith 62). Black Cards: Meath 1 (Conor McGill 29), Louth 1 (Kevin Carr 28)
Attendance: 8,000 approx
What's next: Meath play Kildare on Saturday June 17 in Tullamore; Louth play a Round 1A qualifier on the same day.