Rooney guides Royals past gutsy Wicklow
Meath 2-19 Wicklow 3-12 Leinster SFC quarter-final
When John McGrath stood over a free with just over ten minutes to play, he had the chance to cut the gap to just a point and put Wicklow on the cusp of a major upset.
At that juncture, it would have been difficult to argue with a Wicklow win. At various stages of the game, they had trailed by six, seven and eight points but admirably, always mustered a reply rather than accepting the fate that most thought would be theirs.
They were helped in many ways by a nervous Meath defence who had four players starting their first championship game. The midfield pairing in front of them had only one championship start between them and Wicklow quickly set about testing their stomach.
There was a little over a minute gone when the ball fell to McGrath but his shot was too close to Paddy O'Rourke.
O'Rourke would see much more action than many expected. His last act was to drag down Conor McGraynor when he was through on goal and he couldn't argue when Barry Cassidy produced a black card.
McGraynor had already scored from the spot when he stood over the penalty but this time he blazed wide. Cassidy ordered a retake and McGraynor, who had kicked the decisive point for DCU in the Sigerson Cup final earlier this year, goaled to bring his side back into it.
Meath nerves were jangling after Thomas Kelly cut the gap to two points and when McGrath stood over the free they had all the momentum.
McGrath missed and from there, anything that could have went wrong for Wicklow did. First, Paul Cronin was sent off after apparently being shown a yellow and a red card for the same incident.
The player was clearly stunned to be sent to the line with Wicklow manager Johnny Magee admitting he had "no idea" why he was dismissed.
And while Andy Tormey settled Meath with a couple of crucial scores, Wicklow were reduced to 13 men when captain Dean Healy picked up a black card to go with the yellow he was shown in the first half. Their race was run at that stage and Meath ran out unconvincing winners.
"We came up here firmly believing we would beat Meath even though everybody wrote us off. It was pretty awful stuff in relation to how we were put down from all angles," Magee said afterwards.
"There are 30 odd guys in there who have bought into something we wanted. I thought it was disgraceful how we were put down coming up here.
"Those guys are amateur fellas. I'd be honest with you, I was hurting for them, to have to deal with that negativity from within and outside. They gave a huge performance, did all we asked them to do, they bought into a system, stuck to a game plan."
The first half followed a similar pattern with Meath threatening to scorch off into the distance but Wicklow doing enough to keep in touch.
Tormey goaled from a penalty after Stephen Bray had been fouled. Cronin got Wicklow's goal after a mix-up in the Meath defence as the near-perfect conditions and some naive defending ensured there were plenty of chances at both ends.
The Royals went half a dozen points up at one stage but had to be content with a five-point lead at the break (1-11 to 1-6).
Meath started better and when Bryan McMahon set up Graham Reilly for Meath's second goal, they looked set to blaze home.
But Wicklow found a way back. The presence of McGraynor caused more panic in the Meath defence and he finished the day with 2-1 after converting two penalties.
In fact, such was McGraynor's influence that Meath manager Mick O'Dowd sent for Kevin Reilly to marshall the Avondale man. The Royals eventually found a way but O'Dowd admitted there is much to be done before they return to Croke Park to face Westmeath in a fortnight's time.
"We knew the league form of Wicklow wasn't going to be shown out there," he said. "They had prepared well and they came with a plan. It was a challenge for us we had six out going into it and Conor McGill had a work accident so he was missing from the full-back line too and there was a bit of reshuffling going on. 2-19 was a good scoreline and it was tight and could have went either way. I'm glad the debutants dug deep and showed good leadership."
SCORERS - Meath: A Tormey 1-9 (1-0 pen, 8f), G Reilly 1-4, B McMahon 0-3, J McEntee, J Wallace, S Bray 0-1 each. Wicklow: C McGraynor 2-1 (2-0 pen), P Cronin 1-0, T Kelly, J McGrath (3f) 0-3 each, D Hayden 0-2, P McLoughlin, D Woods, S Kelly 0-1 each.
MEATH - P O'Rourke 6; J McEntee 7, B Power 5, D Tobin 6; N Judge 5, D Keogan 7, D Dalton 6; H Rooney 8, A Flanagan 6; A Tormey 7, P Harnan 6, G Reilly 8; J Wallace 6, S Bray 6, B McMahon 7. Subs: M Burke 6 for Judge (h-t), B Menton 6 for Flanagan (48), E Wallace 6 for J Wallace (51), C McHugh 6 for O'Rourke (55 black card), K Reilly 6 for Dalton (58), S Tobin for Power (66).
WICKLOW - R Lambert 7; A Murphy 6, P Cunningham 6, C Hyland 7; D Healy 5, P McLoughlin 6, M Kenny 6; A McLoughlin 7, D Woods 6; N Gaffney 5, S Kelly 6, D Hayden 7; P Cronin 6, T Kelly 7, J McGrath 6. Subs: C McGraynor 8 for Gaffney (27 black card), R O'Brien 6 for Cunningham (42), J Stafford 6 for Woods (44), P Dalton 6 for McLoughlin (49), B McCrea for McGrath (67), P McWalter for Kenny (69).
REF - B Cassidy (Derry)