'Real leader' Murphy hailed for final surge
Donegal 1-17 Meath 1-15
Consensus from the participating managers in Saturday night's Division 2 league final over the scale of Michael Murphy's influence on Donegal's two-point victory was unanimous.
"He's just a real leader," gushed Murphy's own manager Declan Bonner after a powerful exhibition of ball-winning, free-taking and playmaking from Donegal's totem in Croke Park.
"He brings so much to the group in terms of that leadership quality, the experience and just the quality.
"I thought his second-half performance was outstanding."
Andy McEntee, meanwhile, came at the same subject from a slightly different angle.
"He was a huge factor," agreed the Meath manager. "He's a target man. He's very influential in a lot of areas."
Asked to elaborate, McEntee didn't hesitate.
"He's just very influential all over the field. We get a guy who gets two yellow cards and I think the bould Michael gets booked and gets ticked on maybe three or for occasions?"
"Is that possible? Maybe I'm wrong. Maybe I'm exaggerating. But I doubt it."
It was the only gripe McEntee had about an evening of realisation for Meath that for all their undeniable progress this spring, the steps up are much steeper from here.
For the Royals, the trophy on offer on Saturday night felt less important than the need to measure themselves against a possible All-Ireland contender in Croke Park.
In what was an ultra-competitive Division 2, six wins, one defeat and - at long last - promotion, made an unqualified success of Meath's league campaign.
"But," as McEntee explained, "we needed to find out could we come to Croke Park and could we perform.
"In the end, we weren't strong enough to finish the game off."
After a fluid first half on Saturday night in which Meath thrived, Donegal struggled and Murphy just about broke even in his duel with Conor McGill, the complexion changed beyond recognition in the second.
Into a stiff and direct wind, Donegal played only in spurts in the first half and required the addition of Neil McGee to restrain Mickey Newman.
Yet they hammered and chiselled at a five-point half-time deficit until Murphy put Jamie Brennan in for a brilliant goal in the 57th minute.
That was the first time Donegal led the match but the entire second half felt as though it was just a preamble to that inevitability.
Between them, Murphy, Brennan and the livewire 18-year-old Oisín Gallen scored 1-13 of Donegal's tally on Saturday night.
Brennan's goal - a sumptuous team move and an early contender for goal of the year - was his third in three weeks. Similarly, it was the second time Gallen had contributed four points from play in jut six days.
"He still has a lot of learning to do," Bonner stressed.
"But he's playing up front along with the likes of Michael and that's been great for him to be quite honest. Michael's influence all over the team has been very important."
If that wasn't cause enough for optimism about Donegal's attacking potential as summer looms, Paddy McBrearty took part in the warm-up, his first appearance as part of their match-day panel since rupturing his cruciate last June.
Meath led by eight points at one stage in the first half but scored just two points from play in the second.
When it was put to McEntee that Meath now turn to face summer in a far healthier state of mind than this time last year, he replied: "I think that's a fair understatement. There's no doubt.
"There's initial disappointment with not winning the game there today but I think we can take an awful lot from our performances in the league.
"And even from our performance today. It wasn't a no-show. Ultimately, in the end though, we weren't good enough."
Mostly, they took a team with a greater depth and variety of attacking talent on man-for-man and paid the price.
"We're far from the finished article that's for sure," said Bonner of his own team after adding the Division 2 title to the Ulster crown he won in his first year as manager last summer.
"We still have a lot of work to do but there's been huge progress to be quite honest. We're moving in the right direction, maybe slowly.
"It's great to get back to Division 1, that was our number-one goal. But when you get to Croke Park you want to win, we spoke about it during the week. And it's always nice to pick up silverware here."
SCORERS - Donegal: M Murphy 0-7 (5f, 2m), J Brennan 1-2, O Gallen 0-4, N O'Donnell, J McGee 0-2 each. Meath: M Newman 0-5 (2f, 1m), T O'Reilly 1-2, B McMahon 0-2, B Menton, S McEntee, C O'Sullivan, B Brennan, B Dardis ('45), G Reilly 0-1 each.
DONEGAL - S Patton 7; S McMenamin 6, B McCole 4, P McGrath 6; L McLoone 5, R McHugh 7, EB Gallagher 6; J McGee 8, H McFadden 7; D Ó Baoill 7, N O'Donnell 8, C McGonagle 6; J Brennan 8, M Murphy 9, O Gallen 8. Subs: N McGee 7 for McCole (14), E Doherty 6 for McLoone (h-t), M Langan 7 for McMenamin (44), E McHugh 6 for Ó Baoill (62), F McGlynn 6 for R McHugh (72)
MEATH - A Colgan 6; S Gallagher 5, C McGill 6, S Lavin 5; J McEntee 7, D Keogan 7, R Ryan 5; B Menton 6, S McEntee 6; C O'Sullivan 7, B McMahon 7, B Brennan 5; B Dardis 6, M Newman 8, T O'Reilly 6. Subs: G Reilly 7 for McMahon (35, inj), D Campion 5 for Brennan (44), J Conlon 6 for O'Reilly (65), G McCoy 6 for S McEntee (67).
REF - D O'Mahoney (Tipperary).