Tuesday 11 December 2018

Royals find their mettle to stop rot

Wicklow's Peadar Burke tries to get past
Donnacha Tobin and Donal Keogan at Dr
Cullen Park
Wicklow's Peadar Burke tries to get past Donnacha Tobin and Donal Keogan at Dr Cullen Park
Colm Keys

Colm Keys

Move on, nothing to see here. That was the consensus from Dr Cullen Park as the potential for the first real shock of the championship season was comfortably averted by Meath.

Their first-round victory over Wicklow won't have Leinster champions Dublin or their closest challengers in the province Kildare quivering with fear at the prospect of a resurgent power. Nor will it do much to lift the doubt that exists surrounding this team's ability to compete at the highest levels.

But given the turmoil they have been experiencing since the middle of March, this result will have come as a mighty relief to them. For all that mattered was the result.

There was no shortage of prophets of doom predicting only a second ever championship win for Wicklow over Meath after the manner of their respective league campaigns and the injuries that have affected the Royals since.

Wicklow won Division 4 and Meath of course collapsed towards the end of their Division 2 campaign, resulting in a failed heave against manager Seamus McEnaney.

Whatever privately-held views there may have been in the dressing-room over McEnaney fighting on and subsequently winning sufficient votes to remain in his post, they did not manifest here.


Quite the opposite, in fact. After a nervous start, Meath opened their shoulders and for a spell in a drab and fractured second half it looked like they were actually enjoying their football again.

The perception that the team is 'soft' is being regularly peddled so it will be of comfort to them to hear the views of Wicklow manager Harry Murphy, who felt his team were "bullied" in the second half.

A couple of very strong individual displays made all the difference.

Full-back Kevin Reilly found himself in the eye of an early storm as Wicklow, with wind assistance, bombarded his patch with direct ball in the hope that it would cause consternation against a potentially fragile defence. Reilly held firm, however, and frustrated Wicklow dangerman Seanie Furlong at every turn.

Graham Reilly was cast in a new role as a midfielder to inject some pace into the Meath engine room and it worked perfectly as he raced in for five points, all of a similar hue as he picked holes in the Wicklow defence from deep positions.

With Brian Meade dominating Meath's kick-outs from right half-forward and Conor Gillespie eventually edging his battle with James Stafford, Meath had a platform in the middle that they might not have expected to have beforehand.

Perhaps they might have put more direct ball into Joe Sheridan and Brian Farrell, who had threatened so much on more meagre rations in the opening half against the wind.

But Graham Reilly's searing pace was the primary vehicle for turning a five-point deficit at one stage into a five-point lead by the end.

It was a match that never looked like reaching fever pitch.

Both halves were laced with long delays for injuries. Meath captain Seamus Kenny limped off after just nine minutes with a knee injury but even more serious was a potential broken ankle bone for Wicklow talisman Leighton Glynn early in the second half when his leg tangled with Cian Ward's as Ward prepared to shoot.

Ward converted the subsequent free after a five-minute delay to treat Glynn and Meath led for the first time, 0-9 to 0-8. But Glynn's departure was far more significant than Meath hitting the front.

The fear and erosion of confidence that marked Meath's final league games, against Tyrone and Louth, manifested themselves in the early stages as Wicklow cruised into a 0-5 to 0-0 lead.

With Wicklow favouring that direct ball on the back of the wind advantage, the Meath full-back line was working overtime, but it was basic errors that really punished them, a misdirected Kevin Reilly sideline, Kenny being pressurised into over-carrying and Meade's clean pick all endemic of a team fraught with nerves.

John McGrath did most damage on the inside line for Wicklow with three opportunist scores ensuring the good work further outfield of Dean Healy, Stafford and Glynn wasn't without return.

They had a let-off when a Graham Reilly shot struck an upright and fell favourably into Sheridan's hands. From the position he found himself in Sheridan looked nailed on to score but a little hesitancy allowed goalkeeper John Flynn to touch the shot on to a post and the danger was eventually cleared.

Sheridan's influence grew from there, however, and he gave the final pass for all three Farrell points that followed his own fine 16th-minute score as Farrell returned the compliment.

The loss of Kenny was offset by a smart defensive performance from his replacement Donal Keogan, while Kevin Reilly, Mickey Burke and Bryan Menton kept rearguard security tight as Meath found a way back into the game.

Eventually Wicklow switched Ciaran Hyland onto Farrell but the damage had been done.

Meath got to the break just 0-8 to 0-7 in arrears and with the wind quite strong it put them in a perfect position to attack a Wicklow team who could see their big opportunity slipping away.

Most of their big names disappointed, from Furlong to Stafford, who was eventually sent from the field for a second yellow card on 66 minutes.

Even as they pressed in the last quarter and David Gallagher was forced to save at close range from substitute Conor McGraynor, there was a strong sense that they were going nowhere.

For Meath it was a relief to nail down a first competitive win since early February and put this fixture behind them. That's what the afternoon was about.

Scorers -- Meath: G Reilly 0-5, B Farrell 0-4, J Sheridan, J Queeney 0-2 each, A Forde, C Ward (1f), M Collins 0-1 each. Wicklow: T Hannon 0-6 (4f 2 '45'), J McGrath 0-3, S Furlong (f), S Byrne 0-1 each.

Meath -- D Gallagher 7; D Tobin 6, K Reilly 9, S McAnarney 6; M Burke 7, B Menton 6, S Kenny; C Gillespie 6, G Reilly 9; B Meade 8, M Collins 5, A Forde 6; B Farrell 8, J Sheridan 7, C Ward 5. Subs: D Keogan 7 for Kenny (9), J Queeney 7 for Collins (55), P Byrne for G Reilly (66), B Sheridan for Ward (70), D Carroll for Forde (74).

Wicklow -- J Flynn 7; C Hyland 7, A McLoughlin 6, A Byrne 5; S Byrne 7, S Kelly 6, D Healy 6; J Stafford 6, R Finn 5; D Hayden 6, D O'Sullivan 4, L Glynn 6; T Hannon 7, S Furlong 5, S McGrath 7. Subs: P Burke 6 for O'Sullivan (h-t), P Earls 5 for Glynn inj (42), N Gaffney 6 for Byrne (47), C McGraynor 6 for McGrath (53), J Bolger 5 for Byrne (60).

Ref -- P Hughes (Armagh).

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