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Relief as Royals do just enough

A confused hush and a blanket of general bewilderment enveloped Páirc Tailteann yesterday after Derek Fahy blew his final whistle on a gasping 0-17 to 1-14 draw between Meath and Tyrone.

The Royal County players congregated in the middle of the pitch, looked around and shrugged their shoulders, awaiting word from elsewhere as to whether the result would be sufficient for Division 2 survival.

A couple of seconds later, confirmation of Kildare's late, late victory over Sligo trickled through from Newbridge and a county board official galloped onto the pitch with his arms aloft with the message. Meath were safe.

Cue celebrations born from relief rather than any sense of achievement after an awful seven-game campaign from the Leinster champions.

"I said it before," commented a jubilant Seamus McEnaney -- no stranger to last-day survivals after last year's Division 1 Houdini act whilst at the helm in Monaghan -- after all the calculations were complete.

"If we win it or stay up by the last kick of the last game, well ... happy days. Believe it or not, who did me the favour only Geezer!"


Yes, it was true. Banty's belly-tickling nemesis of a few weeks back and his Lilywhite charges had spared their dear neighbours the ignominy of relegation to football's third tier after an injury-time Martin Penrose free had denied the Royals the victory over Tyrone they undoubtedly deserved in Navan.

Taken as a whole, Meath's League campaign was, to quote McEnaney, "horrendous", but you couldn't fault their timing.

Saving the best for last, they not only produced their performance of the season so far, they also displayed commendable character and grit to claw their way back from a four-point deficit with 20 minutes remaining against a Tyrone team that always looked capable of picking open the Meath defence and might, on another day, have generated five or six goal-scoring chances.

Royal character was in abundance, though. That 11 different Meath players scored exemplifies their collective spirit but there was one who contributed most brilliantly and at precisely the time it was needed.

Wing-forward Graham Reilly kicked four points from play, all beauties from outside the '45'. Coming, as it did, just five weeks after he had a groin operation, it was a timely reminder that on top form, the St Colmcille's man is as close to unmarkable as you can get.

Two of his monstrous sky-scraping efforts came within the last three minutes, his final offering putting Meath ahead with seconds left, only for Joe Sheridan's foul on Seán Cavanagh to give Tyrone a chance to salvage a point.

Tyrone led by two at half-time and played most of the football but Meath's tactic of throwing high balls up to Paddy O'Rourke -- last year's first-choice goalkeeper -- caused all kinds of havoc in the Red Hands' full-back line and Meath capitalised on enough breaks to stay in contention.

At the other end, Brian McGuigan continued his renaissance and orchestrated the Tyrone attack while Martin Penrose (1-6, 0-3f) and Mark Donnelly (0-2) provided the finishing touches.

And it was the continued good form of a now injury-free McGuigan and Tyrone's strong finish to the league which Mickey Harte took most satisfaction on the day.

"He's crucial to our team doing well," the Tyrone manager said. "If Brian McGuigan does well, Tyrone do well."

Meath's need to avoid defeat spurred them on in the second-half, though and the introduction of Kevin Reilly added some steel, while Nigel Crawford provided much of the industry from deep.

"I asked the lads before the game to fight for every crumb today and keep fighting until we're back in the dressing-room," said McEnaney. "They fought for every crumb. I thought they played well.

"Listen, one good game doesn't make you a great team but a couple of bad ones doesn't make you a bad team. It's certainly a relief.

"They say Meath are a good summer team," mused the Monaghan native. "But if you didn't know the months of the year too well you could forgive yourself for thinking today was the middle of the summer."