Royals dig in to clean up Garden
Bolt for anti-Banty crew as Meath show big signs of life
THE true definition of a championship ambush is one that creeps up and bites you - or rather the unsuspecting favourite - on the backside. More often than not, the 'ambush' that is debated endlessly in advance proves nothing of the sort.
Meath versus Wicklow clearly belongs to that second category. Seamus McEnaney's squad have been crisis junkies these past 18 months. Their 3/1 rivals were newly crowned Division Four champions and travelled to Dr Cullen Park yesterday with an understandable pep in their step.
And then for a while at least - as wind-assisted Wicklow gave nerve-addled Meath the first-quarter run-around - reality mirrored all the pre-match predictions of looming Royal calamity.
When Meath goalkeeper David Gallagher played an injudicious low pass to a pressurised Brian Meade, referee Pádraig Hughes blew for an illegal pick-up and Seanie Furlong gratefully accepted the deadball present. The clock was ticking towards 21 minutes; Meath had already lost their skipper, Seamus Kenny, to a knee injury and now the scoreline read 0-7 to 0-2.
Were Wicklow destined to record their first championship victory over Meath since 1957, and only their second ever? Would the 'anti-Banty' bandwagon be back open for business on Monday morning?
Fast-forward a little over an hour, and all is calm in the Royal county. The Garden party poopers have won the last 50 minutes of this Leinster SFC opener by 10 points, the final scoreline reading 0-16 to 0-11.
"When they came at us we had no answer to them," admitted Wicklow boss Harry Murphy. "They bullied us in the second half."
So Meath advance to a quarter-final date with Carlow, fixed for Tullamore on June 10. And guess what? There won't be half as much pre-match talk of an ambush there.
"There has been a lot of talk full stop," McEnaney declared afterwards. "For me, we never lost our focus for this match. No matter what was said outside of our group is totally irrelevant. The only thing that matters is inside these four walls.
"I'm telling you, you can't believe how hard these fellas have worked over the last four weeks. The team has really gelled together and are prepared to fight tooth and nail for each other."
The Monaghan man wasn't inclined to believe the pressure will suddenly disappear on the strength of one victory (Meath's first competitive success since beating Westmeath in February) over a relative minnow.
"Every championship match is a pressure match, whether you're a player or manager," he reasoned. "We have players who have got a lot of stick for not playing well, and some of those fellas played exceptionally well today."
No one better than Graham Reilly, who stormed forward from his new midfield role to land five points from play. Mind you, he was pushed hard for 'Man of the Match' by his fellow Reilly, full-back Kevin, who brilliantly snuffed out the Furlong threat.
"We've been playing Graham there over the last few weeks -- I'm surprised you didn't hear that!" Banty chuckled. "It was a dimension we wanted to bring to our game -- we need more pace in our team. The likes of Graham went well in the middle of the field, and I thought Brian Meade was exceptional at wing-forward."
Certainly, the throw-in switch involving Reilly and Meade proved something of a masterstroke. While the former kept the scoreboard ticking over, Meade was the game's most dominant ball-winner (claiming at least five kickout possessions).
Midfield was one area of anticipated Wicklow supremacy that proved well wide of the mark. James Stafford was prominent early doors, his booming deliveries causing several frissons of panic in the Meath defence, but he faded badly after the first 20 minutes as Conor Gillespie (starting his first SFC match) wrested back the initiative in their key head-to-head. Stafford's downward graph was complete when he walked for a second yellow in the 67th minute.
Growing in stature, Meath landed five of the last six points before half-time to trail by just a point - 0-8 to 0-7. They might even have been ahead if Joe Sheridan had crowned his post-Boston comeback with an 11th-minute goal - he was denied at point-blank range by Wicklow 'keeper John Flynn.
Any chance of a Wicklow resurgence on the resumption lasted roughly the 10 seconds it took for Graham Reilly to win the throw-in and advance for his second point.
Soon after, it was Wicklow's turn to lose their captain -- Leighton Glynn hadn't been enjoying his most productive outing, but when he was stretchered off with a serious-looking ankle injury, you feared the worst for Murphy's men.
By the 46th minute, the gap was out to three. Perhaps the strangest thing is that it took Meath until deep into the eight minutes of injury-time to make the tie mathematically safe with a late brace from Sheridan and Jamie Queeney.
Wicklow even had a couple of goal chances in the fourth quarter - Conor McGraynor was denied by Gallagher, while Peadar Burke's close-range effort was deflected out for a '45' converted by Tony Hannon. And yet, despite these openings, you never got the sense that an improbable comeback was going to happen.
The vanquished manager admitted as much.
"Meath are Meath in championship," Murphy reflected. "We just weren't up to them today. They are a fair lump of a team, big men all over the place. They could have a lot to say in this championship."