Royal rout secures spot in final four
Meath 4-19 Wicklow 0-13
By the final whistle, it was hard to know what could be taken from it all.
Andy McEntee's Meath had been comfortably the better side in Navan's Páirc Tailteann without hitting top gear, while the scale of the task ahead of John Evans was plain for all to see.
After that, there's little that could be read into the 70-plus minutes of action that will be of little real consequence to either of these sides as the 2018 season unfolds.
Meath had the game wrapped up by half-time as they led 2-10 to 0-5.
Gearoid Murphy converted a Wicklow free to make it 0-2 each after seven minutes but the Royals steadily moved into the distance after that.
Their first goal came after Donal Keogan surged through the middle of a porous Wicklow defence and found Bryan Menton. His shot was blocked but debutant David Toner was on hand to sweep the loose ball to the net.
Four minutes later they raised another green flag. This time Toner found Alan Douglas, who slipped a pass inside to Donal Lenihan. His finish to the roof of the Wicklow net gave Robert Lambert no chance.
If there was a sense that it was all done and dusted by the break, it was copper-fastened when the Royals made five changes, withdrawing the likes of Graham Reilly, Mickey Burke and Lenihan.
The second half was fractured but despite the best efforts of centre-back Dean Healy, who kicked two points from play in the game, Meath were 13 ahead with 10 minutes to play.
Things would get even better for them. Mark McCabe capped his impressive debut with a goal and within a minute, they grabbed their fourth. This time Joey Wallace was on hand to score as Wicklow disintegrated. The Ratoath man enjoyed a productive cameo, landing 1-2 from play.
Afterwards, Royals boss McEntee, who handed goalkeeper David Gallagher his first start since 2012, wasn't getting carried away.
"It is still a bit early yet but I thought the appetite from everybody was good, thought the physicality was good, work-rate was good.
"A lot of the new faces that hadn't put on a Meath shirt before, certainly not at senior level, I thought they applied themselves well."
McEntee's project continues in Meath after a 2017 season that he described as "disappointing".
"I am really happy with the players that we have. And I think we were a little bit further on from a strength and conditioning aspect than we were this time last year.
"We are playing catch-up (in terms of strength and conditioning) with a lot of teams. There is no doubt about that, and you just have to go layer upon layer upon layer.
"It was disappointing," he said of 2017. "I think everybody was disappointed but the truth is it wouldn't have taken an awful lot more for it to have been a good year.
"Another point in the league would have had us in Division 1, another point against Donegal here, we would have got into the next round of qualifiers. I think that would have been a good year. We didn't get to where we wanted to be, but we are not a million miles away. It's 50-50 I suppose, whether it was successful or not."
Meath move on to play Longford in next Sunday's Bord na Móna O'Byrne Cup semi-final while Wicklow go back to the drawing board ahead of their Division 4 opener at home to Waterford on January 28.
Despite the heavy nature of the defeat, Evans was determined to focus on the positives even though his forwards managed just one point from play.
"I honestly didn't look at the score in the second half," Evans said. "I was just asking more of our own players of a fine sunny day up here in Páirc Tailteann to go out and play the football we are trying to do in training and it was grand to see them try and do it in the second half.
"That's what impressed me and I think they took that on with a bit of gusto and belief. It mightn't have looked that way to you but when you are down at the bottom of Division 4 the last few years it is difficult to get belief, pace and scoring all matched together."
SCORERS - Meath: D Lenihan (2f), J Wallace and M McCabe 1-2 each, S Tobin 0-4 (2f), D Toner 1-1, G Reilly 0-3, P Kennelly 0-2, A Flanagan, B Menton, S McEntee 0-1 each. Wicklow: G Murphy 0-6 (6f), S Furlong 0-4 (3f), D Healy 0-2, D Keane 0-1.
Meath - D Gallagher; S Glynn, L Moran, M Burke; D Keogan, B Conlon, A Douglas; A Flanagan, H Rooney; M McCabe, D Toner, G Reilly; S Tobin, D Lenihan P Kennelly. Subs: B Menton for Flanagan (blood sub, 15-19), B McMahon for Toner (31), D Griffin for Reilly, L Ferguson for Burke, B Menton for Flanagan, S McEntee for Rooney, J Wallace for Lenihan (all h-t), C Dempsey for Conlon (51), E Greene for Glynn (54), C McGill for Dempsey (BC 70).
Wicklow - R Lambert; C Hyland, H Wilson, E Murtagh; D Fitzgerald, D Healy, J Snell; K Murphy, R Finn; T Smith, M Kenny, P O'Toole; G Murphy, S Furlong, C Byrne. Subs: B Kennedy for Murtagh (31), M Jackson for Lambert, D Keane for O'Toole, C French for Byrne (all h-t), S Kearon for Wilson, PJ O'Keeffe for Kenny (both 44), G Murray for K Murphy, D Kelly for G Murphy (both 57), C Healy for Snell (65).
REF - S Murphy (Louth).