Sport Gaelic Football

Sunday 18 February 2018

Ward leads Royal rampage

DAMIAN LAWLOR, in Kingspan Breffni Park

YESTERDAY evening's fare at Breffni Park had all the content of a tacky Hollywood sports movie: two local rivals pitted against each other in front of a sell-out crowd, a pantomime villain and revenge high on the agenda.

But for the men of Louth, robbed last year in scandalous fashion, this first-round qualifier had no fantasy ending.

Their supporters may have travelled in massive numbers in search of retribution; they may have jeered the hard-working Joe Sheridan each time he touched the ball and their players may have tried everything to rage against the dying of the light, but in the end they simply lost to a better team.

They couldn't keep the razor sharp, four-goal hero Cian Ward quiet, nor had they any solution to Meath's direct running through the centre. Although the likes of Darren Clarke, their only scorer until the 60th minute, and Ray Finnegan battled manfully, they failed to rediscover their League form and so bowed out with a whimper after a shocking second-half display.

Tactically, Meath got it right -- they went to raise green flags every chance they got and attacked down the left flank and through the centre. With Paddy Keenan starting at centre-forward the Louth midfield was cleaned out for most of the first half.

The list goes on. They may have been wronged last year but last night in Cavan there was no injustice. Seamus McEnaney now gets the chance to make something of his season, but Louth, for their own sakes, must finally wash their hands of 2010 and never refer to it again.

Coming into this game, the Martin Sludden affair was on everyone's lips, but it did Louth no favours.

Although Meath were short full-back Kevin Reilly and centre-back Brendan Menton they had the confidence of a fine qualifier record with 14 wins and just six losses. They can thank Sheridan and Ward for this handsome win. They were ably assisted by Shane O'Rourke and Shane McAnarney throughout the night. Before the game even started, Meath must surely have taken serious heart at the amount of movement in the Louth camp before this game , with five changes in personnel made to the side that was selected midweek.

John O'Brien, Andy McDonnell, Michael Fanning, Ronan Carroll and Clarke all came into the side despite being named on the bench. There were further changes just before the throw-in with Aaron Hoey moving from full-back to centre-back; Michael Fanning went to No 3 while All Star midfielder Keenan moved to centre-forward in an attempt to exploit the perceived lack of strength down Meath's spine.

They started with the backing of a significant wind and favoured by most of the support in the 18,242 crowd they shot into a lead with three Clarke frees.

The opening exchanges favoured Louth as Meath barely broke into enemy territory for the first 15 minutes. Whenever they did Ward looked to shoot on sight. He smashed against the crossbar after nine minutes before finally notching a fine goal five minutes later, bursting in from the left corner and leaving Dessie Finnegan in his wake.

It rattled Louth who lost John O'Brien through injury after just a quarter of an hour. O'Brien is only back in the country four weeks ago and it was a sad end to his evening. Eamon McAuley, one of the heroes of last season, replaced him.

At this stage the writing was on the wall. After just 14 minutes on the pitch McAuley who was soon to be whipped off again. Peter Fitzpatrick's men were being totally outplayed at centre-field and so their defence was left wide open.

They needed a response and they got one from the experienced Clarke who pointed a free and then capitalised on a Chris O'Connell mistake to slide home a goal -- their first score from play in almost 30 minutes.

But with their full-back line in tatters, goal-hungry Ward hit again after 31 minutes after skinning McAuley who was replaced with Meath 2-4 to 1-4 ahead at the break and the wind to sail at their backs in the second half. Louth were only barely hanging on.

The second half was a complete rout for Meath. Ward hit another two brilliant goals and two sublime frees to put daylight between the sides after a scrappy opening to the restart.

Louth completely capitulated and only a late Keenan penalty, a harsh call on Meath, took the barren look off the scoreboard. They only managed one point from play all night long -- not good enough.

As daylight faded into night and the floodlights were switched on at Breffni Park darkness once again descended on Louth's Championship hopes as Paddy Gilsenan shot home a last-minute goal.

Meath can now progress to the next stage with a confidence they haven't yet had this year.

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, G O'Brien, C King, C O'Connor, J Queeney, S McAnarney, C Lenehan, S O'Rourke, B Meade, G Reilly, J Sheridan, S Kenny, P Gilsenan, P O'Rourke, C Ward. Subs: P Byrne for J Queeney (45), E Reilly for G Reilly (63), A Moyles for S Kenny (64) M Ward for B Meade(65), N Crawford for C Ward (67).

Louth: S Connor, J O'Brien, A Hoey, D Finnegan, R Finnegan, M Fanning, A McDonnell, P Keenan, B Donnelly, D Crilly, R Carroll, A Reid, D Clark, S Lennon, JP Rooney. Subs: E McAuley for J O'Brien, inj (14), D Byrne for E McAuley (31), D Maguire for JP Rooney (h/t), S Fitzpatrick for R Carroll (54), S Lennon for D Reid (64).

Referee: M Deegan (Laois).

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