Wednesday 22 January 2020

Northern lights shine bright against the Croker gloom

Monaghan captain Conor McManus celebrates after the game
Monaghan captain Conor McManus celebrates after the game

Aisling Crowe

Croke Park had a wintry feel as the mists enveloped the stadium last night and the floodlights were switched on, like one of those February evening games early in the league and not a couple of crucial knock-out clashes in the height of summer. Armagh and Meath had the best of the light and the weather, but Kildare and Monaghan the most thrilling and dramatic game.

The ball was a bar of suds-smothered soap, constantly slithering just beyond the sure grasp of their gloved hands, and more than once, it seemed as though a few fawns were trying to take their first steps as players slipped and slid along the sodden turf.

Both sides attempted an attacking flair to their game, despite, or rather because of, the slippery conditions. Emmet Bolton twice had the Kildare crowd on their feet in the first half, but he also brought the Monaghan contingent up in arms minutes before half-time as a potential goal-saving tackle went unpunished by a card of any hue.

Monaghan fought back in the second half and underneath the spotlights they shone. Vinnie Corey buried the ball in the net to put them a point to the good, another defender moonlighting as scorer of some talent. Fintan Kelly's point pushed their lead out to two points.

Alan Smith and Eamonn Callaghan drew Kildare level with monster scores late on before Eoghan O'Flaherty appeared to give them victory, but Conor McManus levelled with a soft free as the clock ticked into stoppage-time. In the first period of extra-time, Monaghan substitute Chris McGuinness got a goal and a point to open up a lead that the Lilywhites couldn't claw back as the Farney men ended an 84-year wait for a championship victory at Croke Park.

Earlier on Meath appeared to have clawed their way back into the game at half-time. Six points down and without a score for 25 minutes, the Royals looked in deep trouble but the introduction of Graham Reilly five minutes before the break sparked a revival and they reduced the deficit to a single point.

Meath couldn't build on that in the second half and Armagh comfortably coped with the challenge to seal a return trip down the M1 next Saturday for a quarter-final.

The Armagh management team refused to return from their extended sojourn in Coventry even to express their emotions in victory, although man of the match Stefan Campbell was allowed to break the ban to receive his trophy in front of the TV cameras. He insisted that the silence has been beneficial to him and his team-mates. It seems that the siege mentality is working for manager Paul Grimley and his players, so the defences probably won't be lifted any time soon.

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Meath manager Mick O'Dowd may have wished to be anywhere else but facing the media. He spoke eloquently of his disappointment but his demeanour told all anyone needed to know. He cut a dejected figure as the microphones were placed in front of him. Head bowed, chin resting in his hand, eyes downcast composing his thoughts for the questions that would shortly follow.

Disappointment was the bass-line and despondency the rhythm to his post-match refrain. "We thought having gone six down and pulling it back to one, we were in a really good position to drive on in the second half but we didn't. There were opportunities too that we didn't take during those periods but Armagh were set up defensively pretty well and we found it hard to break through them," he admitted. Five-year plans don't have the best historic reputation but O'Dowd is confident that his Meath side will develop into a potent force, given that length of time to mature.

"We targeted a quarter-final place but people need to remember that probably half of the team is playing either their first of second championship season with Meath. With our work, it is kind of two years, and it needs to be a five-year programme to get these lads to where they need to be," O'Dowd added.

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