Thursday 12 December 2019

Galway fightback fails to punish profligate Meath

DERMOT CROWE, at Pairc Tailteann

WITH Meath you are nearly guaranteed drama but this was almost too much. Even their most devoted and unwavering loyalists must have resigned themselves in Navan last night to a defeat that would have haunted them for generations.

Having looked in a commanding position, forcing their will on Galway for most of the evening, they left the door open with a dreadful evening's shooting, 14 wides, one as lamentable as the next.

"I'm sorry I didn't go to the hurling," sighed one weary Galway supporter at half-time, "they're no good."

Harsh perhaps, and certainly premature, but what he'd witnessed wasn't hugely encouraging. Meath led 0-8 to 0-4 and only for imprecise finishing -- nine wides, one dropped short, two goal misses -- the visitors would have been facing an insurmountable challenge on the restart.

Meath continued in that vein after the interval and the profligacy eventually came looking for its pound of flesh. Galway's scoring threat wasn't immense. They loaded responsibility on Padraic Joyce and he had one of his good nights with three points from play and a wonderful fetch under Kevin Reilly's nose that brought another score from a free. But they crawled their way back and grew in stature.

Five unanswered points gave them the lead and growing momentum entering the final ten minutes, one from Gareth Bradshaw levelling, and then Matthew Clancy putting them ahead in a match Meath had led since the 12th minute. Graham Reilly, who had been dropped but brought on after half-time, ended a half hour for Meath without a score. Up stepped Johnny Duane, one of five under 21s who started for Galway, with what looked the winner with three minutes of normal time left. Then, desperate for a score, Meath pulled off another improbable escape act.

Again, the bench served them well. Brian Farrell, who replaced a subdued Paddy O'Rourke, got a score that was greatly cheered. And, audaciously, Stephen Bray put over a winner deep into the four minutes of added time, his third of the evening.

In one last attack Cormac Bane almost had a winning goal but Brendan Murphy rushed out to make a heroic block. The referee blew his whistle and the home crowd, in a bumper 17,000 attendance, hailed a nerve-shredding finale.

Meath progress with much work to do; Galway depart with at least the memory of a spirited rally. For long spells they struggled to cope with Meath's aerial dominance and aggression. Having scored four goals in the facile win over Louth, Cian Ward was hauled ashore without a score from play and some ghastly miscues, including a 20m free. But the malaise was widespread.

Finian Hanley was outstanding for Galway, seeing off O'Rourke, and like his fellow defenders faced tremendous and sustained pressure. They were horsed out of it in the middle of the field and Meath were almost demented in launching themselves onto the breaks.

Galway suffered a major body blow ten minutes from half time when Michael Meehan added another injury to a bewilderingly long catalogue. He fell heavily in possession near the Meath goal but the referee gave a free to the Royals, ostensibly for diving. It was Meehan's first start of the year and it later transpired he had dislocated his shoulder.

Galway football supporters didn't travel with much optimism. The performance against Mayo in losing the Connacht semi-final offered convincing testimony that they are malfunctioning. Relegation from Division 1, some late improvements notwithstanding, lowered expectations; the Mayo performance virtually extinguished them.

Meath are no world-beaters either but at least they came into last night's game with some positives. The defeat of Louth, comprehensive as it was, finally removed much of the stain of the previous year's Leinster final.

After the Mayo defeat Galway started Fionntan O Curraoin and Thomas Flynn, both 19, for the first time. There were manifold positional switches. Hanley ended his trial at midfield with a return to full back, Colin Forde moving to the corner and Diarmuid Blake went to centre back with Greg Higgins dropped to the bench. Bradshaw also retreated to the half-back line after a spell in the forwards.

Meath dropped Graham Reilly, one of their best players last year who hasn't been able to reproduce that level of form and used Seamus Kenny in his place. But it is doubtful after last night that they know their best team or configuration.

Joyce scored all of Galway's points bar one in the first half, Bane grabbing the last nearing the interval. Ward almost added to his recent goalscoring exploits as early as the third minute when he was picked out by Bray but Adrian Faherty managed to get enough on the ball to divert it into the side-netting. Ward then missed the '45'.

Soon Meath began to flex their muscle. Joe Sheridan kicked a big score in a spell that saw them win three Galway kickouts in succession, the second of those a break seized on by Kenny who fed the finisher, Brian Meade. Another from Bray in the 18th minute opened a three-point gap.

Struggling desperately in the middle third, Galway could have conceded a goal when Shane McAnarney tore through the centre and pointed to the visitors' relief.

Scorers -- Meath: S Bray 0-3; C Ward (1f); J Sheridan, S O'Rourke, G O'Brien, B Meade, S McAnarney, G Reilly, B Farrell 0-1 each. Galway: P Joyce 0-4 (1f); C Bane 0-3 (1f); G Bradshaw, M Clancy, J Duane 0-1 each.

Meath: B Murphy; G O'Brien, K Reilly, C O'Connor; C Lenihan, S McAnarney, C King; S O'Rourke, B Meade; P Gilsenan, J Sheridan, S Kenny; S Bray, P O'Rourke, C Ward. Subs: G Reilly for Gilsenan (40 mins); B Farrell for P O'Rourke (45); M Ward for C Ward (55); E Reilly for King & N Crawford for Meade (64).

Galway: A Faherty; J Duane, F Hanley, C Forde; G Bradshaw, D Blake, G Sice; J Bergin, F O Curraoin; T Flynn, M Hehir, M Clancy; M Meehan, P Joyce, C Bane. Subs: F Breathnach for Meehan (inj 24 mins); P Conroy for Bergin (54); E Concannon for Hehir (56); M Boyle for Clancy (71).

Referee: M Collins (Cork)

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