Rare silverware rewards Royals for right attitude
Meath 1-17 Longford 1-11
When you've been beggars for so long, you can't be choosers.
An O'Byrne Cup is not something they'll be waving from the rooftops enthusiastically but when there's been such a hollow sound to the Meath trophy cabinet for the last few years, there'll be some quiet satisfaction for Mick O'Dowd and his team that they've landed a competition at last before a crowd of 5,000.
Not since the controversial Leinster final against Louth in 2010 has a Meath hand been placed on a cup at any level in inter-county football.
Admittedly they managed to avoid provincial kingpins Dublin, who were taken out of it by Longford seven days earlier, and Kildare, who took an experimental path through their three-match programme.
But when only Graham Reilly and Paddy O'Rourke from the existing squad have a medal to reflect on from their senior inter-county careers it's a measure of how fortunes have dipped and how deep the transformation in personnel has been, especially under the present management.
Still, O'Dowd was able to reflect afterwards on a state of "stability" in his squad despite the loss of up to 10 players through retirement, injury and an unwillingness to commit since last season.
"There is quite a lot of stability over the last three years. There's about 22 or 23 players that are coming into the age where they can really compete at this level," reflected O'Dowd, who was overseeing the county's first O'Byrne Cup win in a decade.
"I think a lot of the main Meath players are settling into themselves as inter-county players. Players like Donal Keogan, Padraig Harnan have four years of inter-county football under their belt but they are still only 22, 23, 24, that bracket. It's a good age.
"I'm happy with the month's work, the last number of months have been very good. There's a lot of hunger there. It is good to frank that work with a bit of silverware.
"Look, this is just a stepping stone, as we know. The season begins next Sunday (against Armagh) so we need to be ready to move on," he qualified.
While Meath will welcome the benefit of five games in a three-week period, Longford manager Denis Connerton was questioning the spin-off from their early season odyssey.
Noting an exhaustion in his players Connerton wondered if the programme of games will now catch them out in Tullamore on Sunday for their opening League match against Offaly.
"The five games in three weeks, we were hoping it wouldn't get to us," he said. "At times we looked very poor today. We looked jaded tired, exhausted. I don't think we're that bad.
"Maybe we weren't as good as we looked last week either. It lies somewhere in between the two performances. Offaly will be sitting out there waiting for us, they'll be fresh, have their homework done on us. We have been distracted by these games. They are great to get them and it's a great competition but there are a lot of games in it.
"We've used 26 players, which is as much as we have at the moment. There's a lot of counties in Leinster, therefore a lot of games. You are victims of that in the province that you are in."
Longford simply couldn't handle the acceleration of Reilly, a problem Laois encountered at the same venue two weeks earlier.
Described by his manager as "a player in his prime" he scored six points, most with that trademark burst through the middle at such blistering pace, before retiring with a facial injury that O'Dowd is confident won't keep him out of next week's League opener against Armagh.
Longford tried three different players on him to no avail in the first half alone. "We tried so many different options but he just grew and grew into the game and his pace was electric. You can see why he is such a big players for them. He was very influential. He won frees," lamented Connerton.
If Reilly led the charge, Cillian O'Sullivan was a helpful pillion passenger in the half-forward line as he continued his recovery from a back injury that has kept him out for two years. He had a direct involvement in five of the 10 first-half points, scoring one and being fouled for two Mickey Newman frees.
His 45th minute goal, courtesy of Newman's slicing run through the Longford defence, effectively settled it after Longford had closed to three points for a second time.
"I have said it as a statement of fact rather than an excuse over the last couple of years that Meath have been hit hard by a couple of key men who have picked up injuries," said O'Dowd.
"The likes of Conor Gillespie and Kevin Reilly and Cillian. . . He's back after two years. He's in brilliant shape. He's a real leader."
O'Dowd expressed himself unhappy with the concession of a goal to Robbie Smyth midway through the first half after a decent sequence of passes as a five-point lead at one stage was clipped back to just one, 0-7 to 1-3.
It stalled Meath but not for long as two Newman frees and Reilly's fourth point gave the home side a 0-10 to 1-3 interval advantage.
Longford had plenty of possession against the breeze in the first half but they were too pedestrian and Meath were content to sit back and hit them on the break.
Meath's defence was shaky at times and Francis McGee, Smyth and Paul McKeon when he came on always looked like they could exploit it.
But Donal Keogan looked solid at full-back.
For Longford, substitutes Donal McElligott and Barry Gilleran had their moments defensively, but Meath just did things sharper and faster.
Connerton will welcome back Mickey Quinn, Dessie Reynolds and Rory Connor from DCU duty for the opening League game; O'Dowd will press his club and college-tied players straight into action this week.
The defeats of Ratoath and Curraha in their respective All-Ireland club semi-finals will release up to eight players but the manner of their losses to their Kerry opponents will be somewhat sobering too given how much they populate the current squad.
Scorers - Meath: G Reilly 0-6, M Newman 0-4 (4fs), C O'Sullivan 1-1, S Tobin, D Lenihan 0-2 each D Smyth, R O Coileain 0-1 each. Longford: F McGee 0-6 (3fs, 1 '45'), R Smyth 1-2, M Brady, L Connerton, B McKeon all 0-1 each.
Meath - P O'Rourke; J O'Reilly, D Keogan, M Burke; A Douglas, P Harnan, C Finn; H Rooney, A Tormey; G Reilly, C O'Sullivan, D Smyth; C Downey, M Newman, D Lenihan. Subs: S Tobin for Tormey (44), P Geraghty for Douglas (53), R O Coileain for Downey (56), M Battersby for Reilly inj (68), Nicky Judge for Geraghty (68), D Rowe for Lenihan (68).
Longford - P Collum; CP Smyth, B Gilleran, F Battrim; D Masterson, D Brady, A Dalton; M Brady, B Farrell; B McKeon, D Gallagher, J McGivney; R Smith, F McGee, M Hughes. Subs: D McElligott for Dalton (22), S Doyle for Farrell (23), L Connerton for Masterson (ht), P McKeon for McKeon (ht), B Kavanagh for Gallagher (41), P McGee for Brady (62).
Ref - B Cawley (Kildare).