Murphy leads from the front as Donegal reel in Royals
Donegal 1-17 Meath 1-15
Victories from behind tend to be romanticised, indicative of strong character. Donegal needed plenty to beat Meath after allowing them an early eight-point advantage in this Division 2 final. After a dreadful start, when Meath tore out of the blocks and had the Donegal defence chasing shadows, the Ulster champions found themselves 1-6 to 0-1 in arrears with just 13 minutes played.
From there, they managed to turn a crisis into a morale-boosting victory but manager Declan Bonner realises there is work to be done as he starts to prepare for a championship opener in Enniskillen on May 26. The return of Patrick McBrearty will be a huge boost but yesterday they were served heroically by captain Michael Murphy, who led the comeback.
There were strong performances, too, from Oisin Gallen, a sweet two-footed finisher who scored four points from play, while in the other corner Jamie Brennan scored 1-2, the goal putting Donegal ahead for the first time, 1-16 to 1-14. In the final ten minutes Donegal held on to the ball, at times riskily, but eventually Meath committed a foul, when Brennan was tripped in injury time by Shane Gallagher. The Meath defender was given a black card and sent off as he had already been shown a yellow.
Murphy kicked the free, and Cillian O'Sullivan's response with a free was too late to rescue Meath. That point was their first score since the 47th minute when Mickey Newman, electric in the first half, landed a beautifully struck '45'. A minute earlier substitute Graham Reilly kicked their only score of the second half from play.
Donegal relied on all their experience, the six seasons spent in Division 1 in this decade and the four Ulster title wins in the last eight years, while Meath are returning for their first season in Division 1 since 2006. Perhaps that told.
"It was a poor start," admitted Bonner, who is the second year of his second spell in charge. "Meath were playing all the football, they were playing with all the intensity. But we dug out a few scores before half-time and our second-half performance was very good. Some of the scoring was top class.
"There was a real lack of energy and a lack of intensity in that opening quarter and that's something we will have to look at."
Meath, playing with the wind, were full of running in the first ten minutes. Bryan Menton put them in front after 25 seconds and while Murphy levelled, Meath quickly whipped up 1-5 without reply, with Newman torturing Brendan McCole. The Meath full-forward, who has returned after time away, scored three points, and had a hand in the goal after ten minutes for Thomas O'Reilly.
The Meath attack had Donegal in bother in every position and all had scored before half-time except one. McCole was sacrificed, with the experienced Neil McGee coming on to try to curb Newman's influence. Meath continued to play well and were unfortunate to lose one of their in-form forwards, Bryan McMahon, to injury. They led 1-10 to 0-8 at the interval but Donegal were showing some signs of improvement by then.
Meath, making their first appearance at the venue since the 2016 Leinster semi-final against Dublin, seemed to relish the occasion in the opening half. They came into the match with justifiable confidence, being the division's most consistent team, with just one loss, in Ballybofey.
And that defeat to Donegal did not reflect their dominance. But they have no excuses for their second-half slump here. Donegal closed down their attack and grew in stature, with Murphy involved in almost everything they created.
Newman had a late first-half goal claim ruled out for a square ball, with the Donegal defence again stretched, but even then there were flashes of what the Ulster side could do, with good scores by Gallen and Brennan. One from each player left them only a goal adrift on the half-hour mark, before late sores by O'Sullivan and O'Reilly had Meath five up by the interval.
Barry Dardis had a fly-kick goal attempt four minutes into the second half, after a flick down by Newman, that went narrowly wide of the post. That, had it gone in, would have put them seven points clear but it was the closest they came to breaching the Donegal goal from there on.
Murphy, who finished with 0-7, grew and grew and Michael Langan came on to get some valuable game time after recent injury. There are questions for the defence but they will have made the long journey home in good spirits.
Scorers - Donegal: M Murphy 0-7 (0-5fs, 0-2m); J Brennan 1-2; O Gallen 0-4; J McGee, N O'Donnell 0-2 each. Meath: M Newman 0-6 (2fs, 1m, 1 45); T O'Reilly 1-1; B McMahon, C O'Sullivan (f) 0-2 each; B Menton, S McEntee, B Brennan, G Reilly 0-1 each.
Donegal: S Patton; P McGrath, B McCole, S McMenamin; D O Baoill, L McLoone, EB Gallagher; H McFadden, J McGee; N O'Donnell, C McGonagle, R McHugh; J Brennan, M Murphy, O Gallen. Subs: N McGee for McCole (13 mins); E Doherty for McLoone (half-time); M Langan for McGonagle (43); for E McHugh O Baoill (54); F McGlynn for R McHugh (70).
Meath: A Colgan; S Gallagher, C McGill, S Lavin; J McEntee, D Keogan, R Ryan; B Menton, S McEntee; C O'Sullivan, B Brennan, B McMahon; B Dardis, M Newman, T O'Reilly. Subs: G Reilly for McMahon (inj 35 mins); D Campion for Brennan (43); J Conlon for O'Reilly (65); G McCoy for S McEntee (67).
Referee: D O'Mahoney (Tipperary).
Sunday Indo Sport