Plenty of food for thought in Meath as Louth pack much harder punch
Louth 1-14 Meath 0-10
The last time Louth came to Páirc Tailteann and ransacked their hosts like they did in this O'Byrne Cup semi-final, Meath were relegated to Division 3 of the league and then manager Seamus McEnaney faced a vote of no confidence from his own County Board, which ultimately failed.
Losing a pre-season competition in a similar manner, though, should be reviewed with some perspective and Meath manager Andy McEntee certainly sought to strike that note after this defeat.
However, there still has to have been some alarm at the manner of this defeat, played out before a 4,000-plus crowd.
It might have been more comprehensive but for a couple of very smart saves from Jack Hannigan. He was later black carded for a third man tackle on Louth substitute Sam Mulroy, paving the way for Joe Sheridan's introduction as replacement goalkeeper.
Sheridan's arrival drew cheers from the home crowd, to drown out some derisory booing on the other side in pantomime fashion - the lingering legacy of the 2010 Leinster final goal.
His first job was to pick the ball out of his own net after Jim McEneaney's penalty flew past him in the 68th minute, ensuring Louth's safe passage to a final against a third-string Dublin in Drogheda next weekend.
Not that Louth needed the security of that conversion, because they had been in total control up to that point and, apart from a brief spell in the first-half, never looked like losing this game.
Meath can resort to Alan Forde's red card in the 23rd minute - following an altercation that engaged close to every player on the field after Graham Reilly had been hacked down - if they are looking for some scant comfort.
In the end, collaboration between the officials determined that Forde had to go and the handicap of being a man down was one the home side just didn't deal with well, as Louth threw bodies back and drew opponents into their web with ease.
However, it was the physicality of Louth that really stood out.
They hit hard, they tackled furiously, they were cynical when they had to be and finished with six yellow cards - a count that could have been higher.
"It's a man's game," said Louth manager Colin Kelly afterwards.
"Why work your ass off three or four nights a week to go out and go into yourself when the game starts on Sunday. What are you training for?
"It's a physical game. We're not over the top, we're not physical in any fashion, but what we don't want is lads taking a backward step.
"So we have to be as strong as we can be and get physical. For years we have got fellas behind the ball and done nothing, just shadow-boxed inside or own 45," he added.
"Now we are trying to get contact on, not in a dirty fashion, just to be physical, be strong in the tackle. It seems to be paying off.
"We seem to be turning teams over, we're not broken down as easily as we were."
The card count reached into double digits with Forde's red, Hannigan and Ruairi Ó Coileáin's black and three more yellows for Meath.
Graham Reilly was a particular target for Louth, given his role in last year's championship match, and at every opportunity he was stopped in his tracks - legally and otherwise.
His participation in this game was a surprise so close to his club St Colmcille's involvement in an All-Ireland intermediate semi-final next weekend, and underlined Meath's intent.
Even Louth boss Kelly expressed surprise about his selection and wondered about his "mindset" so close to next weekend's match.
Ironically, his St Colmcille's club manager Colm Nally is now alongside Kelly coaching the Wee County.
Meath manager McEntee said such attention is something Reilly is going to have to adjust to.
"He is one of our better-known players and one of our better players, so he's going to get a certain amount of attention," he said.
"It's up to referees to recognise that and protect him, but he's got to keep playing his game and get on with it.
"He seemed to be fouled quite a bit alright."
McEntee sensed early on that his charges were off-colour.
"Even at 0-4 to 0-2 ahead, I don't think we were playing particularly well.
"Louth had a few wides. I know that we had a few wides, but we didn't seem to be as sharp or as aggressive as I'd like us to be. So the signs were there that we were in a fair bit of trouble."
Louth hit eight unanswered points after Forde's dismissal, with Derek Maguire, Andy McDonnell, Anthony Williams and Tommy Durnin giving them trouble with their movement.
Kelly has rebuilt Louth impressively since the rubble of a heavy qualifier defeat to Tipperary in Thurles in 2015 and the return of McDonnell to the squad, among others, is a real lift.
They led by 0-6 to 0-4 at the break and took all of Meath's shots when the home side got some momentum midway through the second-half. They closed the gap to two points, with impact off the bench from Cillian O'Sullivan and Conor Downey.
However, Louth closed well, making the most of the gaps Meath had to leave at the back to press hard in more advanced positions.
"Good win, badly needed," reflected Kelly.
"People think of 2010, but we came over here in 2012 and gave Meath a good trimming too in the league.
"People say it's only the O'Byrne Cup, but ultimately we wanted another game in the competition."
McEntee was adamant "nothing changes" after the defeat, with the focus still very much on Kildare in the first round of the league in two weeks.
However, the size of the task he is facing to bring Meath to the next level will have become much more apparent after this, with some hard choices to make in the weeks ahead as the squad is cut from its current 50-plus figure.
McEntee couldn't accurately explain how the performance had been so flat.
"I don't know. Some days you don't have it, we have been working hard and we have a heavy week's work done.
"Maybe that was responsible for some of it, but your attitude is your attitude.
"If we had it for that 20-minute period in the second-half, then why didn't we have it at the start? I don't know the answer to that, but we didn't have it."
Scorers - Louth: J McEneaney 1-1 (1-0 pen), D Maguire, S Mulroy (2fs) 0-3 each, T Durnin, A McDonnell 0-2 each, D Byrne, P Smith, A Williams all 0-1 each. Meath: R O Coileain 0-3 (2fs), C Downey 0-2, C O'Brien, B Menton, S Tobin (f), B McMahon (f), E Wallace all 0-1 each.
Louth: C Lynch; P Rath, P Reilly, K Carr; D Maguire, L Dullaghan, A Williams; T Durnin, A McDonnell; D Byrne, P Smith, B Duffy; C McKeever, R Carroll, G McSorley. Subs: J McEneaney for Carroll (31), S Mulroy for McSorley (38), J Bingham for Reilly (50), J Stewart for Dullaghan (64), J Califf for Durnin (71), R Nally for Smith (69).
Meath: J Hannigan; D McQuillan, D Keogan, S Curran; S Lavin, B Power, A Forde; B Menton, C O'Brien; R O Coileain, G Reilly, E Wallace; K Ross, P Kennelly, S Tobin. Subs: C McGill for Curran (34), C Downey for Lavin (38), C O'Sullivan for Tobin (41), B McMahon for Ross (41), S McEntee for O Coileain BC (59), D Lenihan for Wallace (64), J Sheridan for Hannigan BC (67).
Ref - D Moore (Laois)