Ruthless Ward slays Leinster final demons
MeatH 5-8, Louth 2-8
All-Ireland SFC qualifier
At the end, the players came together and exchanged handshakes and nods in an orderly fashion.
There won't have been phone numbers exchanged or anything like that, but at least there was a feeling that a line had been drawn under everything that had gone before.
The injustice served upon Louth by the match official in last year's Leinster final was never going to be erased here. If anything, it could only heighten it and a crowd of 18,243 turned up to Kingspan Breffni Park, just in case it did. Their sense of anticipation had been misplaced however, taken off course by a man with his own personal vengeance to execute.
Joe Sheridan described Cian Ward as the most naturally talented footballer he has ever played with; another colleague, Shane O'Rourke, acknowledged that in those 'one-to-one' positions, nobody is more "lethal".
Ward has a reputation as a scorer of great goals as much as he is considered a great goal scorer. There is a distinction. When he strikes for goal there is generally a spectacular hue covering his effort.
His form over the last 12 months had taken a sharp dive, so much so that he wasn't even an option off the bench when the ship was sinking against Kildare in the recent Leinster quarter-final.
But a predator like him never loses his instinct and it was a ragged Louth defence who paid the price for that slight of being overlooked as he displayed his ruthless streak with four magnificent goals.
When Ward smells weakness and detects panic around opponents he knows precisely where the jugular is.
And once he went spinning away from his marker Dessie Finnegan in the early minutes and unleashed a shot off Sean Connor's crossbar, Ward would have sensed that vulnerability he thrives on.
It's a long time since any player scored four goals in a championship match and, true to form, each one of the quartet was a gem. Three different Louth defenders tried to contain him but each one struggled badly.
The context of his omission from the first 20 the last day only serves to heighten the achievement. How could Meath leave out a player who can produce such form having been idle for so long?
"I suppose if you want to get a reaction from a player you drop him or leave him in the dug-out," reflected manager Seamus McEnaney afterwards.
"Wardy came back in after the Kildare match and was absolutely in class form for the club and for us over the last two weeks. He brought that to the game today."
McEnaney will at last feel he can see some road in front of him after a tumultuous few months in a difficult job. With this result should come an injection of confidence.
This was a match that Meath could not afford to lose, a contest in isolation linked back to events almost 12 months ago. Ultimately they had more to prove.
"It has been very frustrating and you can imagine the relief this is for us. It was a huge match and the players wanted, for the want of a better word, to put this baby to sleep and they did it in decent style," he said.
"We haven't got the results that we'd have liked to be getting, so it was a very important result and I am delighted for everyone who has really dug in and drove this on in tough times."
The manager can't have been brimming with much confidence himself when he lost both central defenders, Kevin Reilly and Bryan Menton, to injuries at training during the week as they had been two of Meath's best players against Kildare.
But in their place Caoimhin King was adequate at full-back and Shane McAnarney inspirational at centre-back. Elsewhere, O'Rourke's first championship outing at midfield was another big success as he enjoyed probably his best championship performance and finished with three points.
Captain Seamus Kenny's willingness to put his nose in the dirt and get hurt for his team was underlined again in the most physical of the exchanges while Joe Sheridan, who ran a gauntlet of abuse from Louth supporters, never allowed the reception to seep in and set up two of the five goals.
Sheridan was glad to have the fixture behind him.
"After all that's gone on in the last 12 months or so it was great to get it over and done with," he reflected. "In fairness to Louth, they were very gracious and the way the game was played was fantastic; there was no bad feeling between the players."
For Louth it was a most disappointing night, compounding the misery of their Leinster championship exit to Carlow.
There was nervousness on both sides, a sense that the occasion had so much at stake, and the flow of the football sometimes suffered.
Manager Peter Fitzpatrick talked up the future and listed the relative successes Louth have enjoyed at senior and underage level over the last two years before committing himself to that future.
But the senior side have fallen below the standards they achieved in the first year of his stewardship.
Louth began briskly with three unanswered points (two frees) from Darren Clarke. But it quickly became evident that Clarke was their only real threat -- he was their lone scorer from play.
Everyone else was running down cul de sacs. Playing Paddy Keenan at centre-forward for much of the first half didn't have the desired effect and by the time he was restored to midfield O'Rourke's confidence had grown.
The level of change from the original team selected -- five switches were made beforehand -- must have had an unsettling effect. Not unlike last year's Leinster final, Ray Finnegan drove Louth on relentlessly with some enterprising play from wing-back.
But after taking a 2-4 to 1-4 lead in at half-time having played against the wind, the initiative was all Meath's and they didn't relinquish it this time.
Piling on the pressure in the third quarter with absolute dominance in midfield, they didn't make it count on the scoreboard with 14 wides in total, and their final tally bore a resemblance to what they put up against Dublin a year ago. In two championship matches they have scored just 16 points and that's a source of concern.
Still, the quality and quantity of the goals glossed over everything, with Sheridan supplying Ward's third and O'Rourke measuring a crossfield pass perfectly for the fourth which was hit on the turn.
Then, the ever-improving Paddy Gilsenan, creator of the first goal, converted the last, a product of Sheridan's sheer strength after a soft penalty had been awarded to Louth, which Keenan converted.
Finally, it seems, the ghost of July 2010 can rest.
Scorers -- Meath: C Ward 4-3 (0-3f), S O'Rourke 0-3, P Gilsenan 1-0, G Reilly, J Sheridan 0-1 each. Louth: D Clarke 1-8 (0-7f), P Keenan 1-0 (pen).
Meath -- B Murphy 7; G O'Brien 5, C King 7, C O'Connor 6; C Lenehan 6, S McAnarney 8, J Queeney 6; B Meade 6, S O'Rourke 8; S Kenny 8, J Sheridan 8, G Reilly 6; P Gilsenan 7, P O'Rourke 6, C Ward 9. Subs: P Byrne 6 for Queeney (44), E Reilly 5 for Reilly (57), A Moyles for Kenny (62), M Ward for Meade (64), N Crawford for C Ward (69).
Louth -- S Connor 5; D Finnegan 5, M Fanning 6, J O'Brien 5; D Crilly 6, A Hoey 5, R Finnegan 8; B Donnelly 6, R Carroll 5; A McDonnell 6, P Keenan 6, A Reid 5; D Clarke 7, S Lennon 4, JP Rooney 4. Subs: E McAuley 4 for O'Brien (14), D Byrne 4 for McAuley (31), D Maguire 6 for Rooney (h-t), S Fitzpatrick 5 for Carroll (54), D Reid for Lennon (62).
Ref -- Maurice Deegan (Laois)