Efficient Meath mix bit of 'nice' with bit of know-how
'Meath have a lot of nice footballers on that team," said a man on his way out of Aughrim on Saturday evening as if that was the final seal of approval for the new-look side that had just weathered a very stormy 75 minutes against Wicklow.
Indeed they have, but not many Meath football people I have known would regard having 'nice' players as being the ultimate test of the county's football pedigree.
Still, there is no doubt that apart from the nice players on duty in Aughrim, Meath also have quite a few hard grafters and it was that section of the team, when the pressure from Wicklow was at its most intense midway through the second half, that eventually brought Mick O'Dowd's outfit to the Leinster semi-final against Wexford.
Stylish forwards who can score from play were always a Meath trademark and on Saturday we got an exhibition from Graham Reilly and Eamon Wallace, who scored some magnificent points from play in very difficult conditions.
The crucial difference between two evenly-matched teams was that Meath were more capable of responding when the game was there to be won.
Of course, the game was largely decided in the space of a minute just before the break when Wicklow won a penalty. Meath were only two points in front after playing with the unruly wind. Some gamesmanship by Meath backs delayed the kick and when Seanie Furlong hit a poor shot, 'keeper Paddy O'Rourke had little difficulty in saving.
Within the minute full-back Kevin Reilly ventured as far as the halfway line with the ball and in typical Meath style lofted a Hail Mary kick as far as he could. The ball bounced and then ballooned over Wicklow 'keeper John Flynn into the net – a possible six-point swing which changed the game completely.
In the past many a Wicklow team would have waved goodbye but Harry Murphy's men are made of sterner stuff and produced a marvellous response after half-time, with four unanswered points in as many minutes to cut the margin to just two. Aughrim was rocking.
It was then, when playing into a raging wind, that Meath players showed they are more than just nice footballers. They dug in all over the field and we had a wonderful exciting game of old-fashioned play where every ball was contested in a ferocious manner – in contrast to so much of what we see these days.
But Meath had enough players with big-time experience to maintain control – just.
The Royal scores kept coming on a regular basis with four points in the 40th, 41st, 45th and 47th minutes; it was a period when only John McGrath scored for the home team.
It was strange that when they had the strong wind Wicklow resorted to playing the short game rather than sending in high balls to Furlong and others – especially so as it usually broke down.
Two wide frees from the otherwise impeccable Meath freetaker Mickey Newman gave Wicklow an apparent reprieve but their scoring power had collapsed by then and they managed only three points in the final 28 minutes. When Joe Sheridan ran straight from the dugout as a sub in the 60th minute to send a magnificent kick over the bar with his first touch to put Meath five points clear, you knew Wicklow's goose was cooked. And Joe's message to the selectors was equally clear.
It was a powerful game for Meath to win as they had been waiting months for a decent contest and they got a much tougher one than they might have expected.
It will stand the Royals in more than good stead because Wicklow were almost on a par with them, except for that cuteness in tight situations which is inbuilt in Meath footballers. Having said that, the small Meath contingent in Aughrim will not be betting big on a Leinster championship title.
There are huge problems to be sorted out, most notably why Wicklow forwards were able to race through a Meath backline untouched in the first half and also the fact that Wicklow had the upper hand at midfield for much of the game.
Meath will need more steel to match their undoubted ability but if they manage to beat Wexford before facing Kildare or Dublin in the final, then that commodity should be there in abundance. It will need to be.
Wicklow played some great football too and they should do well in the qualifiers, particularly if they play in Aughrim. The brilliant goal scored by Paul Earls in the sixth minute was worth the admission charge on its own.
It was a pity to see the very poor attempts at tackling from both sides, particularly from Meath. Men in possession were boxed, pulled, slapped, held and pushed with abandon, leading to too many frees
It must be stressed it was not malice but lack of skill in the tackle that caused these problems. Do some county teams nowadays not spend time specifically coaching the skill of tackling without fouling?
Leinster Council officials must have been sweating for a while during this game too, as a Leinster final without Meath facing Dublin or Kildare would have hit their finances badly.
Meath, of course, are far from being in the final yet and they will now face a much more experienced team in Wexford – that's quite a big change in the relationship between the two counties.