Streetwise Meath keep cool in the heat of battle
In the end Meath were just that bit too savvy, that bit too strong for a Wicklow side that is an invariably tough proposition among the old-school charm of Aughrim. It was a bright, pulsating encounter, a more lively game than the horrible conditions gave anybody the right to expect. When the drama had subsided and the gloom began to descend, Meath marched onto the Leinster semi-final and Wicklow were banished to the familiar territory of the All-Ireland qualifiers.
By the start the unremitting rain had relented, but it probably didn't bode well for Wicklow that they had to play into the teeth of a powerful gale blowing towards the town end. Facing the imperative of keeping themselves in the game, hanging onto Meath's coat-tails if they had to, it would have been disheartening for Harry Murphy's side if Meath had been able to steal a gallop.
That fear was heightened just two minutes into the game. A long ball caused havoc in the Wicklow defence and, when the ball broke, Stephen Bray found himself one-on-one with John Flynn in goal. Bray's effort flashed off Flynn's outstretched leg and, with the reprieve of a second chance, Bray then blasted his second effort into the side-netting. Aughrim heaved a huge sigh of relief.
Meath found their rhythm with a couple of Mickey Newman frees but Wicklow were determined not to let them establish too much of it. When Conor Gillespie was caught in possession, Wickow worked the ball quickly from defence. Paul Earls danced around Donal Keoghan and rifled his shot past Paddy O'Rourke. With Meath pushing forward, Wicklow were able to find space in behind and, at times, used it inventively and intelligently.
Twice in the opening half they managed to sneak into narrow leads and it wasn't until Brian Meade sent over a long-range effort after 26 minutes that Meath finally pushed two clear. Three exquisite points from play by Graham Reilly were Meath's high point, but Wicklow were able to summon a response each time. Thirty minutes gone, they would have been delighted with the effort and commitment they'd put in. Then the gods laughed cruelly in their faces.
First they smiled upon them when O'Rourke hauled down John McGrath to concede a penalty. It was shockingly struck by Seanie Furlong, his low shot easily blocked by O'Rourke, and if a missed three points was the only consequence, Furlong's blushes would have been spared somewhat. As it was, the repercussions were more dramatic than anybody could have imagined.
Moments later Meath were deep in their own defence when full-back Kevin Reilly sent a long, hopeful ball towards the Wicklow defence and, although Flynn had his eye on it, the ball took a wicked zip off the greasy surface and shot into the top corner of the net, as freakish a score as you are likely to witness and, for Wicklow, as bitter a blow as any team could suffer.
So Murphy's team turned around six points in arrears when they'd worked tirelessly to contain them to a couple. But then they rattled over three quick points after the restart and you wondered if a six-point gap was that much at all. Meath steadied the ship with points from Pauric Harnan and another beauty from Graham Reilly.
But now Wicklow were sniping away at their heels. Flynn kept them alive by deflecting a Peadar Byrne shot for goal and McGrath's accuracy was paying dividends at the other end. Newman showed his mettle for Meath by thumping a '45' over into the wind and Eamonn Wallace, like Newman a newcomer to championship football, made a telling contribution in the other corner.
The game never really lost its dramatic edge. There were more goal chances at both ends, plenty of effort and the welcome sight of two teams playing bright, good football in horrible conditions. Ultimately Meath had that bit too much class. Joe Sheridan came on and kicked a wonder score. Paddy Gilsenan came on soon after and kicked another nice point.
Wicklow didn't have reserves like that but they'll look back, see the margin by which they lost and reflect on that crazy few seconds towards the end of the first half. A harsh business sometimes.
Scorers – Meath: M Newman 0-6 (0-4f, 1 '45'), G Reilly 0-4, E Wallace 0-3, K Reilly 1-0, B Meade, P Gilsenan, J Sheridan, P Harnon 0-1 each. Wicklow: J McGrath 0-4 (0-3f), P Earls 1-0, A McLoughlin 0-3, S Furlong 0-2 (2f), R Finn, D Hayden, P MacWalter 0-1 each.
Meath: P O'Rourke; D Keoghan, K Reilly, B Menton; C Lenihan, C King, M Burke; B Meade, C Gillespie; P Byrne, D Carroll, G Reilly; E Wallace, S Bray, M Newman. Subs: S Kenny for Burke (35), P Harnan for Lenihan (35), B Farrell for Carroll (42), J Sheridan for Newman (61), P Gilsenan for Byrne (66).
Wicklow: J Flynn; C Hyland, D Power, A Byrne; D Hayden, P MacWalter, D Healy; A McLoughlin, R Finn; D O'Sullivan, J Stafford, J Kelly; J McGrath, S Furlong, P Earls. Subs: JP Dalton for O'Sullivan (35), P Dalton for JP Dalton (42), L Benson for Healy (47), for Kelly (52).
Referee: C Lane (Cork).