Colm O'Rourke: 'Insightful day gives glimpse of bigger picture'
After 13 minutes the game looked over for Donegal. Meath were sharp and kicking accurately into Mickey Newman, who was making hay.
The score at this stage was 1-6 to a point and the pace and movement of the Meath forwards was causing all sorts of problems for Donegal. Thomas O'Reilly scored a beautiful goal and there could have been more, such was the dominance at midfield of Bryan Menton and Shane McEntee.
Brian McMahon and Cillian O'Sullivan were causing havoc by running straight at the goal and Meath had another goal harshly disallowed for a square ball. It was free-flowing football too from Meath who trusted the boot as much as the hand.
The signal went out early for Neil McGee to come on and his presence steadied a leaky ship. He ensured he was not going to be exposed by calling players back to cover the central channel.
Indeed, the older, experienced Donegal players changed the tone of the game for the rest of the first half, Paddy McGrath, Ryan McHugh and Leo McLoone in particular, as Michael Murphy was being well held by Conor McGill.
Meath got off the hook early in the second half when the referee called Murphy back for a mark when the road to goal was open. So much for advantage.
The other big problem early on for Donegal was that they were losing a lot of the breaking ball off their own kick-outs, while Meath seemed to win theirs much easier.
A contrary wind blew away from Hill 16 and towards the Canal End, the opposite of the normal breeze. Perhaps this is another sign of global warming but high up in the press area it seemed like an iceberg more than a heat wave was on the way.
With the wind at their backs Donegal kicked more and Murphy - who dominated the second half by brute force and lots of skill - became a great target for the likes of Eoghan Bán Gallagher, whose attacking pace is hard for any team to handle.
Oisin Gallen kicked a couple of beautiful points and then a necklace of quick hand-passes ended with Jamie Brennan scoring a wonderful goal. Murphy was living close to the edge though. He already had a yellow card when he put in a dangerous tackle on O'Sullivan.
When Donegal hit the front they shut up shop and held on to the ball, often kicking and hand-passing over and back while Meath chased shadows. It was not pretty but that is the way of the world.
For the last 15 minutes the Meath forwards stopped running and Donegal coped easily - few can match Declan Bonner's side when it comes to holding possession.
This was not a life-or-death game but it was enjoyable, up until Donegal scored the goal. After that it petered out.
Both sides can take a lot from this league campaign. Meath are back in Division 1 but Donegal are a good bit further down the road in terms of development. Their calmness and experience told, going from eight down to win by three.
Donegal also have found players like Gallen and Caolan McGonagle. Add in those yet to return and they will have a formidable team in the summer.
The circus now moves on to championship. Meath have improved and exposure to the top division will aid the development, so long as they stay up for a few years.
But losing such a big lead is a concern and where did all the players who were wreaking such havoc in the first half go, especially the last quarter when all big games are won or lost? Donegal also ran up a big score against a defence which had been the strongest part of the team until now.
So there was a lot to think about, even if it is always good to get to Croke Park, something Meath have not been very familiar with over the last few years. There is a long way to go but a start has been made and progress is often in short steps.
The day started early for Leitrim. Before the match there was a reception for surviving members of the Leitrim and Derry teams who played a league semi-final 60 years ago. They don't walk the same anymore but the pride and dignity are still intact.
The event was sponsored by Mike Carty of Rosie O'Grady's in New York, a proud Leitrim man whose contribution to football in New York, Leitrim and Ireland is impossible to quantify. There have been more hot dinners gratis to emigrants in his bar than those handed out by Meals on Wheels in Ireland. Not only that but it doubles as an employment exchange where young lads from all over Ireland are fixed up with a job and a place to stay - the same story that applies all over the world where the GAA has a presence.
Leitrim had all the support. If Aer Lingus did well out of returning supporters from the US then every bus company in Leitrim must have been booked out as every young person must have made the voyage. Derry, by contrast, had not enough supporters to fill a coach and a mini-van.
In the first half the Leitrim points were cheered and so was every intervention by the defenders who tackled and harassed Derry to distraction early on. One brilliant score by Ryan O'Rourke was the high point of the half as Leitrim attacked without fear; Raymond Mulvey followed up with another after a long solo run. But they racked up the wides too, 10 in total, many from very easy positions.
Leitrim kicked from midfield, while Derry soloed and ran the ball through the hands. Derry got possession from every one of their kick-outs, which gave them a platform to attack. Leitrim had obviously decided that they would keep a man back to mind the house. It worked, but as the half wore on Derry had more play and reeled in that early Leitrim lead, with Emmett Bradley and Enda Lynn causing plenty of problems.
Bradley could have made life easy in the second half when through on goal but Cathal McCrann made a brilliant block. It summed up Leitrim's problems - if they committed to attack they were going to leave big gaps at the back and Shane McGuigan was able to punish them when space opened up.
The centre of the Derry defence was excellent. Brendan Rogers and Chrissy McKaigue carried the ball upfield at every opportunity. Rogers looks a bit awkward in movement but seldom coughs up the ball. Derry were also greatly helped by goalkeeper Thomas Mallon, who kicked out accurately long and short.
Derry should be in the hunt for another promotion next year. The fall from grace is being reversed and there is a future in this side if they stay together and are managed properly. That is not a given in Derry.
Leitrim needed a goal to salvage the game but it never looked like coming. A few high balls caused some consternation but the Derry defence coped easily and they can look forward with some confidence to the Tyrone match in the championship.
Yet this was more than a football match for Leitrim. It was affirmation that they belong to the GAA as much as anyone else and why should they or any other county have to wait so long to play on the pitch that every young man dreams of playing on?
The support was magnificent from first whistle to last but too many county players can go through a career without getting even one big day out in Croke Park.
Whatever reform comes should address that question first.
Sunday Indo Sport