AS he accepted the Keegan Cup in Páirc Tailteann, Niall McKeigue dedicated Navan O'Mahonys' latest Meath SFC triumph to players rendered absent through injury or emigration. The veteran captain could, just as easily, have dedicated this two-point victory to the patron saint of lost causes.
That's how bleak the forecast looked after just two-and-a-half minutes of this weirdly oscillating county showpiece. At that calamitous juncture, O'Mahonys trailed Donaghmore/Ashbourne by two goals to no score.
The throw-in had been delayed for ten minutes because of congestion at the turnstiles ... now it appeared as if the hold-up had caused a total systems shutdown in the Navan defence as Donaghmore/Ashbourne's two county stars, Bryan Menton and Andrew Tormey, plundered them for a goal apiece in jig time.
Yet by half-time, the wind-assisted favourites had recovered to achieve parity (0-8 to 2-2) and even though their rivals briefly regained the lead through Michael Deegan, their collective confidence appeared to crumble once 19-year-old Ruairí Ó Cioleain goaled on the rebound within five minutes of the restart, after Stephen Bray's initial effort had been blocked by full-back Cormac McGill.
Suddenly faced with a two-point deficit, Donaghmore/Ashbourne's relative lack of experience was reflected in a rising count of errors and poor option-taking ... and when Jake Regan claimed the decisive toe-poke for O'Mahonys' second goal after 46 minutes, it looked a definitive case of game, set and title number 19 for the county town heavyweights. Even more so after Gary O'Brien stretched their lead to six points after 51 minutes.
Then, it was almost as if the grim finality of Donaghmore/Ashbourne's situation liberated them once more. They reeled off five unanswered points - via Tormey, their best player; another from Michael Deegan; and two Deegan frees sandwiching an Eric Callaghan score - to leave the bare minimum in it.
The game was well into its third additional minute when David Bray claimed the crucial next kickout. His brother Stephen then placed a teasing through pass which Henry Finnegan reached just before being upended by goalkeeper Jack Hannigan, and Regan tapped over the resultant free. Cue celebration time.
"The way the lads adapted was just incredible," enthused winning boss Davy Nelson. "We were actually quite happy at half-time to have got level. Traditionally, in our DNA, we play much better into a wind than with it ... when we started to win the collisions around the pitch and start to play our give-go game, we are pretty good at it."
They had appeared all at sea for those opening minutes, as Menton dummied through a slumbering defence to calmly find the net after barely 80 seconds; within a minute, the gloriously unmarked Thomas McGovern was ghosting onto a pass at the far post before teeing up Tormey for a tap-in. Tormey gave McKeigue an early toasting - reflected in two more points by the 20th minute. But they wouldn't score again before the break, and the psychology of drawing level was huge for Navan.
"We kept saying, 'They have only scored four times, they have only scored two points in the last 29 minutes'," Nelson pointed out.
Donaghmore boss Paul Clarke - of Dublin fame - never once presumed that a first county title since 1942 was in the bag. "When the goals went in I was nearly still settling into my seat and I said to the guys, 'Look, this is not going to win us the game' ... we got the goals because we were playing a certain type of football. But maybe the goals came and fellas thought they would do something different."
Clarke has relished his first season with the club and has already recommitted for next year. For Nelson, the next goal is a Leinster date with either Rhode of Offaly or St Patrick's of Louth - and the chance to atone for Navan's provincial 'no-show' in 2012 when they suffered a 2-13 to 0-8 humiliation against Killoe Emmet Óg.
"We played in Leinster against the Longford champions and never turned up. We were embarrassed. It won't happen this year," the manager promised. "Now obviously you'd love Kevin Reilly (one of several long-term absentees after recent hip surgery) to go to war with whoever we'll be playing - but I guarantee we'll perform the next day."
SCORERS - Navan O'Mahonys: J Regan 1-4 (0-4f), R Ó Cioleain 1-0, S Bray 0-3 (2f), A Forde, D Bray, S Gillespie, G O'Brien 0-1 each. Donaghmore/Ashbourne: A Tormey 1-3, M Deegan 0-5 (3f), B Menton 1-0, E Callaghan 0-1.
NAVAN O'MAHONYS: D Quirke; B Dillon, N McKeigue, D Smyth; J O'Reilly, S Crosby, G O'Brien; C McGuinness, D Moran; R Ó Cioleain, S Bray, A Forde; J Regan, D Bray, D Maguire. Subs: S O'Toole for Smyth (23), S Gillespie for Maguire (ht), H Finnegan for Forde (59), S McGabhann for McGuinness (59), Maguire for Moran (61).
DONAGHMORE/ASHBOURNE: J Hannigan; C Carton, C McGill, J Boland; C Ellis, S Melia, S Curran; B Menton, C Carey; T McGovern, E Riordan, D McGovern; M Deegan, A Tormey, C Beirne. Subs: E Callaghan for Boland (40), E Reilly for Riordan (40), S Byrne for McGovern (51), P Gilligan for Ellis (52), M Devine for Beirne (53).
WIDES: Navan 7 (3+4); Donaghmore/A 8 (3+5)
YELLOW: Navan 1 (McKeigue 14); Donaghmore/Ashbourne 3 (Carey 43, Tormey 48, Hannigan 64).
REF: C McManus (Kells). ATT: 5,066.