Meath 3-14 Cork 0-19
To some, the idea that Colm O’Rourke might reawaken something elemental in Meath football at this time in his life amounts to a silly idealism.
An iconic figure in GAA punditry, his decision at 65 to forsake the relatively sedentary world of TV lights and print in pursuit of a virtual lost civilisation will certainly never be mistaken for any act of convenience.
But in Páirc Uí Chaoimh yesterday, he looked and sounded like a man without a shred of doubt that this is where he needs to be.
Certainly any notion that some kind of poignant loyalty brought him back to Meath looked misplaced as his young team went toe-to-toe with the recently impressive McGrath Cup winners and pushed themselves instantly into a position of strength in what promises to be a cut-throat Division 2 campaign.
Goals from Shane Walsh, Jordan Morris and Cillian O’Sullivan eased them home against opponents whose concluding 0-19 tally would, ordinarily, have been expected to suffice in a January environment.
“We thought we had the team in a good place coming and sometimes these things blow up in your face,” O’Rourke reflected when it was over. “I think we gave 15 fellas games in the O’Byrne Cup who had never played senior football for Meath.
“Then we played Donegal last weekend and it went well. And training this week seemed to step up a gear too. Sometimes training can make a fool of you, but we just did think that the team was going well.”
He’d sensed a nervousness in the Meath dressing-room beforehand and that seemed to translate into a tentative opening from his team, Cork looking the slicker, more tactically coherent side to begin with.
But just seven minutes in, the impressive Shane Walsh then slalomed past Seán Meehan in along the Blackrock end whitewash to beat Micheál Aodh Martin with a tidy finish and, if anything, the score italicised Cork’s vulnerability to a running game.
They constantly looked ill at ease when confronted by runs from deep, Cork manager John Cleary admitting afterwards that the sheer athleticism of the Meath half-forward line became an issue for his team.
None of this might have mattered mind had Harry Hogan not saved brilliantly at the other end from Mattie Taylor after a sweeping 18th-minute Cork move and Stephen Sherlock’s general excellence had the hosts 0-10 to 1-5 ahead approaching the half-hour.
But it then required a wonderful double-save from Martin to keep out, first, Darragh Campion and, then, Morris approaching half-time, Meath palpably sensing opportunity in support running off the shoulder.
They got to half-time 1-6 to 0-11 behind and the margin of Cork’s advantage was unchanged by the 53rd minute when an otherwise excellent Ian Maguire had possession thieved from his grasp by Jason Scully who duly ran through a great prairie of unmanned space before offloading to Morris for a desultory finish.
Eight minutes later, it was O’Sullivan’s turn to find the Cork front door gaping open, the Moynalvey man racing in unchallenged to fire spectacularly into the top corner past a helpless Martin.
And that, essentially, was that, albeit Hogan did have to be alert to thwart Colm O’Callaghan and Seán Powter within seconds of one another in the 53rd minute, Cork already, as their manager Cleary averred, “having to play catch-up.”
For O’Rourke, this then felt the perfect opening statement in a division with potentially profound implications for any upcoming championship ambitions.
“It’s a relief as much anything,” he reflected.
“Listen, it’s going to be a long road and there’s going to be a lot of bumps in the road. But it’s a great start that will give us a huge amount of confidence. No team in the Second Division wants to be in the Tailteann Cup, that’s the reality.
“We want to make sure that we finish high enough that we’re in the last 16 for the All-Ireland. That’s the aim.
“And the players have been brilliant. They’ve been as committed to the cause I’d say as any other Meath team ever before.
“We probably left another two or three goals behind as well. We were beginning to open them up”.
The result is undeniably a setback for Cork given so many positive impressions made in that McGrath Cup win established on three successive victories, in which they’d registered the remarkable cumulative total of 7-40.
“It does put us on the back foot in the division now,” reflected Cleary. “There’s no point saying otherwise. Look we always knew we had a tough start, Meath, Kildare and Dublin. But there’s nothing we can do about today only learn from it.
“Just take the lessons learned to Newbridge next Sunday. The game was there to be taken and in the end Meath took it.
"I was disappointed we weren’t up more at half-time, but conceding 3-14 won’t win anything.
"Coming here today, the last thing I thought was that we would concede three goals!”
Meath next entertain Clare in Ennis, O’Rourke insisting that that was his only focus now.
SCORERS – Meath: S Walsh 1-7 (2fs, 2ms); J Morris 1-2; C O’Sullivan 1-1; M Costello 0-2 (0-1f); C Hickey and J O’Connor 0-1 each. Cork: S Sherlock 0-14 (10fs, 0-1 ’45); C Óg Jones 0-2; M Shanley, M Taylor and S Powter 0-1 each.
MEATH – H Hogan 8; J O’Hare 7, M Flood 8, C Hickey 7; E Harkin 7, D Keogan 7, D O’Neill 7; R Jones 7, D McGowan 8; C O’Sullivan 8, J Scully 7, D Campion 7; J Morris 7, M Costello 7, S Walsh 9. Subs: A O’Neill 7 for D O’Neill (h-t), H O’Higgins 7 for O’Hare (49), J O’Connor 7 for Harkin (49), D Moriarty 7 for McGowan (52), S Crosby for O’Sullivan (65).
CORK – M A Martin 8; M Shanley 7, D O’Mahony 7, K O’Donovan 6; S Meehan 6, R Maguire 7, M Taylor 8; C O’Callaghan 7, I Maguire 8; E McSweeney 7, S Powter 7, B O’Driscoll 7; C Óg Jones 7, B Hurley 6, S Sherlock 8. Subs: T Walsh 7 for O’Donovan (44), J O’Rourke 7 for McSweeney (52), L Fahy 6 for O’Dwyer (54), C O’Mahony 6 for Hurley (61), R Deane for Powter (65).
REF – B Cawley (Kildare)