Saturday 20 January 2018

Laois hitting peak form ahead of Dublin test

Laois 1-15
Meath 1-12
All-Ireland SFC Rd4 Qualifier

Martin Brehney

THE jump-leads have worked for Laois. Relegation to Division 2 in April and losing to Longford in the first round of the Leinster championship in May drained their confidence batteries, but six weeks on the charger provided a powerful burst of energy for the qualifiers.

Four wins later, they are headed for the All-Ireland quarter-finals for the first time in six years, looking very much like a team that is finally coming together in a manner which befits their broad range of individual skills.

Whether their development has reached the stage where they can match All-Ireland champions Dublin next weekend remains to be seen, but they will have fun finding out. In any event, they will be playing championship football in August, fulfilling the primary ambition of every county as they scan the new season from cold muddy training fields in January.

Laois were well beaten by Dublin in last year's Leinster championship, never climbing past average in their attempt to dislodge more structured opposition, but would now appear to be better equipped for what will be an even tougher challenge.

Dublin are a whole lot more formidable than they were in early June 2011, so if Laois are to have any chance of beating them, they will need to switch to yet another gear because, as Justin McNulty acknowledged after Saturday's win in Tullamore, the qualifier draw was kind to them.

Carlow, Monaghan (both at home) and Leitrim (away) provided Laois with a massive opportunity to relaunch themselves, and while Meath were a considerable step up, the Royals carried the six-day turnaround handicap.

That two beaten provincial finalists have to face their All-Ireland destiny six days after suffering such a major disappointment remains one of the great injustices in the GAA world, but for reasons that scorn logic, the fixture makers insist that it's unavoidable.

Of course it's not and there are now proposals to reconfigure the schedule next year, but that's of no value to Meath, whose volatile season ran aground in a windy, showery O'Connor Park.

The final scoreline suggests a close battle but, in reality, Laois enjoyed a level of superiority for long stages which should never have left them facing such a nervous finish.

They led by 1-12 to 0-5 after 38 minutes, and while Meath had the strong wind backing their survival attempt, it was asking an awful lot of them to wipe out a 10-point deficit.

They outscored Laois by 1-7 to 0-3 from there on but their goal came too late (68 minutes), and while Laois had an edgy last few minutes, they did enough.

Rescuing

Just as they had been all afternoon, Kevin Meaney, John O'Loughlin and Cahir Healy were especially formidable as Laois held out after a slick Meath move played Peadar Byrne through for a goal which, similar to the previous Sunday in the Leinster final, raised Meath's hopes of rescuing the situation.

However, that was Meath's final score, leaving them three points down and reflecting on various incidents which left them with what proved to be an unbridgeable deficit.

That search took them back to the first half, in particular, and the concession of scores which were down to their failings rather than major enterprise by Laois.

The most crucial came in the 25th minute when goalkeeper David Gallagher gifted Laois a penalty, which Ross Munnelly, who continues to illuminate Laois' attacking landscape, dispatched to the net.

Padraig Clancy's kick for a point dropped short into Gallagher's arms. As he came forward, he was challenged by Colm Kelly, who knocked the ball out of his hands. Suddenly, the advantage lay with Kelly, who was fouled by Gallagher.

It was one of quite a few difficult moments for Gallagher, whose kick-outs against the wind spun over the sideline on a few occasions. In fairness, he recovered well in the second half, making one brilliant save from Brendan Quigley in the 48th minute.

Apart from conceding the goal which put them six points behind, Meath lost corner-back Donal Keogan to injury around the same time, another serious setback. Keogan has had an excellent championship, taking the high-class form he displayed against Dublin into this game.

Laois led by 1-9 to 0-5 at half-time, leaving Meath requiring a productive start to the second half. Given the energy and guile that Graham Reilly had brought against the wind in the first half, Meath seemed well placed for a second-half surge but it didn't materialise quickly enough to put Laois under real pressure. Reilly found it very difficult to get on the ball in the second half and, in any event, Meath's slow start left them facing what turned out to be an insurmountable challenge.

Billy Sheehan, Munnelly and Clancy all kicked points in the opening three minutes of the second half, leaving Meath facing a 10-point deficit.

Their response was, as manager Seamus McEnaney stressed, full of honest endeavour and no little class, but they had left themselves with too much to do.

Still, they will be disappointed that they missed chances they would normally exploit.

Joe Sheridan misdirected a '45' in the 53rd minute and both Brian Farrell and Stephen Bray kicked wides after Meath pared the deficit back to three points late on.

Scorers -- Laois: R Munnelly 1-4 (1-0 pen, 0-1f), P Clancy, MJ Tierney (1f), C Kelly (1 '45') 0-2 each, D Strong, B Quigley, D O'Connor, B Sheehan, C Begley 0-1 each. Meath: B Farrell 0-8 (8f), P Byrne 1-0, M Burke, G Reilly, S Bray (f), E Harrington 0-1 each.

Laois -- E Culliton 7; C Healy 8, K Meaney 9, P O'Leary 7; D Strong 7, J O'Loughlin 8, C Boyle 7; B Quigley 8, C Begley 7; R Munnelly 8, B Sheehan 7, G Walsh 6; D O'Connor 6, P Clancy 8, C Kelly 7. Subs: D Conway 6 for Walsh (47), MJ Tierney 8 for Kelly (52), P McMahon 7 for Sheehan (58), P Cahillane 7 for Conway (64).

Meath -- D Gallagher 5; D Keogan 8, B Menton 6, M Burke 7; D O'Carroll 6, S McAnarney 7, D Tobin 6; C Gillespie 6, G Reilly 7; A Forde 5, S Bray 6, B Meade 6; B Farrell 7, J Sheridan 7, C Ward 5. Subs: P Byrne 7 for Forde (21), E Harrington 7 for Keogan (25), J Queeney 6 for Ward (46), T Walsh 6 for Carroll (50), M Collins 6 for Gillespie (60).

REF -- J McQuillan (Cavan).

Irish Independent

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