McNulty aiming higher as Laois roll over Royals
LAOIS football hasn't been showered with superlatives this season and this won't magically transform them into championship contenders either. But it was a welcome tonic all the same and a massive pep to Justin McNulty's team.
The year could have faded into obscurity. Instead, they now have an All-Ireland quarter-final to look forward to, having negotiated their way through all four rounds of the qualifiers. In timely fashion, they produced their best performance of the year in Tullamore in the final round to deny Meath a quick antidote to their Leinster final defeat six days earlier.
Ah those six days and the way they can hobble you. Until Down's victory yesterday, Dublin in 2001 were the only county who managed what Meath were hoping to achieve yesterday: to win a qualifier within a week of losing a provincial final. There can be no quibbling. Laois were better, clearly, took their chances more clinically and made less errors. That usually equates to victory.
They also had more of their players showing the zest for battle. Having barely got out of Carrick-in-Shannon in the last round, and fallen on Longford's sword in Leinster, this was a heartening Laois performance which drew applause from their manager, Justin McNulty.
"Coming home after being beaten by Longford it was difficult to envisage us being in this position," he said, "but as I said before this game, the team kept working hard. When you do that and keep going collectively, it's amazing what you can achieve.
"We've had a handy enough draw, a lucky draw. We hadn't met any of the big guns before today. Meath were the first big gun. I don't think it's as high as Laois can go."
How big that Meath gun is now, though, is debatable. They didn't play well here and the fighting spirit that Seamus McEnaney promised after losing to Dublin, in defiance of that well-peddled qualifier curse, didn't reveal itself sufficiently to survive. They didn't roll over of course and finished strongly but the scoreline is misleading. Laois were coasting until a late Brian Farrell free and a Peadar Byrne goal created some unlikely late drama.
On a day of wind and league-like rain and a plethora of yellow cards (11, eight to Laois), Meath closed their season with the distinct feeling of under-achievement. Is the glass half-full now or half-empty? You can argue that one all winter.
Afterwards McEnaney, whose job looked dust earlier in the year, said he would make a decision on his future in the "next five days". Since the buoyant win over Kildare his support constituency may have weakened. Meath people won't be fooled by late gloss endings two matches running but there are some positives and a nod to an emerging generation.
"I am proud of the Meath players, proud of the young fellas who have come through, proud of my management team that really drove this job on, particularly this last 12 or 14 weeks. All I'll say is my decision will be swift in the next five days," McEnaney said.
"I couldn't ask for anything more. Six great championship matches, a real bit of spirit back and a new team built and ready to go forward. I'm proud of my management team; I'm proud of the young lads coming through; Meath is back with fighting spirit."
But the fight could not be sustained long enough to live with Laois. After Byrne's goal they had enough time to claw back the lead with points but Laois closed down the space and Meath couldn't find a gap or the clinical finish required. Laois fouled when they had to stop Meath from creating overlaps and there were some memorable displays of defiance from a resolute defence.
Meath went out in the second half with a hill to climb, seven points adrift, after playing against the wind. Ross Munnelly kicked three of those points from play, finished with 1-4, and used the wind intelligently. The only aberration was a moment late in the game when with two players available on the overlap he shot wild and from the kickout Byrne scored the goal that left Laois with a needlessly nervous finish.
Colm Begley kicked two scores before going off, one of those a '45' with the rain bucketing down on him approaching the interval. Laois squeezed everything out of the tube, made the most of their chances, but they were helped too by Meath negligence.
After 26 minutes the Meath goalkeeper David Gallagher fielded a ball from Padraig Clancy that dropped short, lost the ball trying to round Kelly, panicked and committed a foul. Joe McQuillan spread his arms wide and Munnelly poked home the penalty. Having been within three of Laois Meath were looking at a steeper challenge. Even worse, their feisty young defender Donal Keoghan was forced to leave the injured after a bid to tidy up his goalkeeper's blunder.
Gallagher pulled off a wonderful stop from Brendan Quigley, one of Laois' outstanding players, in the second half to keep them in it. But the goal helped give Laois an invaluable platform when it looked like they would not carry enough of a cushion into the second period. Keoghan's loss was substantial and they had started the game without Kevin Reilly due to injury.
The team rarely looked smooth. Alan Forde, Cian Ward and Damien Carroll were withdrawn from the attack, and Sheridan had a quiet match. Farrell's best work was from frees. Brian Meade caught some great balls and Graham Reilly made a few promising early bursts but eventually faded.
Laois stretched their lead to 10 points after the interval and Meath responded with four. They were within six and had 25 minutes still on the clock. Enough on the clock, not enough in the tank.
Scorers -- Laois: R Munnelly 1-4 (1-0 pen, 1f); C Kelly, MJ Tierney 0-2 (1f); P Clancy 0-2; D Strong, D O'Connor, B Quigley, B Sheehan, C Begley 0-1 each. Meath: B Farrell 0-8 (8f); P Byrne 1-0; M Burke, G Reilly, S Bray (1f), E Harrington 0-1 each.
Laois: Eoin Culliton; C Healy, K Meaney, P O'Leary; D Strong, J O'Loughlin, C Boyle; B Quigley, C Begley; R Munnelly, B Sheehan, G Walsh; D O'Connor, P Clancy, C Kelly. Subs: D Conway for Walsh (47); MJ Tierney for Kelly (52); P McMahon for Sheehan (57); P Cahillane for Conway (64).
Meath: D Gallagher; D Keogan, B Menton, M Burke; D Carroll, S McAnarney, D Tobin; C Gillespie, G Reilly; A Forde, S Bray, B Meade; B Farrell, J Sheridan, C Ward. Subs: P Byrne for Forde (21); E Harrington for Keoghan (28); J Queeney for Ward (46); T Walsh for Carroll (51); M Collins for Gillespie (60).
Referee: J McQuillan (Cavan)
Sunday Indo Sport