'Thirty seconds of madness' leaves Murphy reeling
Wicklow manager left to rue missed penalty and concession of freak goal just before the interval
MEATH manager Mick O'Dowd wasn't worried that his side were the last county in Leinster to get into 2013 championship action, even though the Royals had a daunting task in taking on Wicklow in Aughrim.
O'Dowd was making his championship debut as boss of Meath and, from his point of view, it was worth the wait.
A five-point victory in a game marked by a few minutes of madness just before half-time set up Meath for their provincial semi-final clash with Wexford on Sunday week.
First, Meath goalie Paddy O'Rourke was booked for the foul that gave the home side a 31st-minute penalty.
Then O'Rourke saved the spot-kick from Wicklow's Seanie Furlong and, almost immediately, Meath full-back Kevin Reilly scored a freak, wind-assisted goal from long range.
Reilly launched the ball from around his own 45-metre line high into the air.
It bounced off the wet turf and took on a momentum and spin that caused it to hop over Wicklow 'keeper John Flynn high into the corner of the net.
Reilly admitted: "I couldn't say I was going for it," but he has form in this regard, as he performed a similar feat in Meath's league game against Roscommon last March.
The goal was a game-changer. On the 30-minute mark the sides were level at 1-4 for Wicklow to Meath's 0-7.
By the time referee Conor Lane blew his whistle for the interval, that had changed to 1-10 for Meath to 1-4. Shock and awe doesn't begin to describe the feelings of Wicklow players and supporters.
O'Dowd feels his team will need to up their performance level "by 20pc" if they are to reach the Leinster final, but they showed typical grit and determination to overcome Wicklow.
They almost got off to a sensational start when full-forward Stephen Bray was through on goal with just over a minute played, but he sliced his close-range shot high and wide.
It was a big escape for Wicklow but they coped admirably against the gale for the first half hour.
Home team boss Harry Murphy felt that the crucial last four minutes of the first half were devastating to Garden County hopes of a first championship win over Meath since 1954.
The penalty miss and the Reilly goal came at a time when Wicklow had battled against the gale-force wind and were very close to parity.
With that wind behind them, who knew what would happen? But they didn't count on the gut-wrenching double blow so close to half-time.
"It was 30 seconds of madness. To miss a penalty and then have them come down the field and score that freak.
"When something like that happens, what can you do? It's very hard to take," said Murphy.
O'Dowd agreed the two major incidents of that period were important but trusted his players to carve out a win either way.
On Reilly's goal and the Wicklow penalty, he said: "Championship games take a life of their own and there are always instances.
"It (the goal) came at an important stage but you would put trust in our lads that if the penalty had gone in they would have responded in a different way to that at that time."
Earlier, Wicklow captain Paul Earls had given his side a boost by taking a pass from John McGrath and arrowing his way towards goal before firing the ball past Paddy O'Rourke into the net after just seven minutes of the game.
Meath fielded impressive debutants Eamonn Wallace and Mickey Newman in the two corner-forward slots and it paid off. Substitute Pauric Harnan later came on to join them in the debutant club.
Wallace, a national sprint champion, and Newman, who got five points, four from frees and one from a '45', were busy and productive.
Wicklow, powered by Paddy McWalter, midfielders James Stafford and Anthony McLoughlin, and forwards Rory Finn and John McGrath, kept in touch for most of that opening period.
After half-time, Wicklow came out with all guns blazing. They clipped over four points in quick succession by Stafford, Darren Hayden, Anthony McLoughlin, and a Seanie Furlong free to be just two points adrift.
But once Pauric Harnan and Graham Reilly steadied the ship with a brace of points in the 40th and 41st minutes, it was clear Meath were not going to panic.
Man of the match Graham Reilly summed up the Royals' attitude, saying: "They threw everything at us in the first 10 to 15 minutes of the second half. We really did very well to hang in there. A couple of lads got inspirational scores to keep the scoreboard ticking and that made a massive difference for us."
Meath were able to bring on experienced heads Brian Farrell and Joe Sheridan to help steer the ship safely home.
Sheridan, with almost his first touch of the ball, raced down the wing and slammed over a 62nd-minute point at just the right time to make the score 1-16 to 1-11.
Graham Reilly highlighted the value of a strong substitutes' bench.
"Joe came on there and got an unbelievable score. That's what we need. It's something we maybe lacked over the last couple of years but this year lads like Brian Farrell, Seamus (Kenny), Joe (Sheridan), Paddy Gilsenan, lads who would start on many teams in the country, are sitting on our subs' bench," he said.
"Those lads are certainly pushing to get a start the next day."
Scorers – Meath: M Newman 0-5 (4fs, '45'); G Reilly 0-4; K Reilly 1-0; E Wallace 0-3; B Meade, J Sheridan, P Gilsenan, P Harnan, B Menton 0-1 each.
Wicklow: J McGrath 0-4 (3fs); P Earls 1-0; A McLoughlin 0-3; S Furlong 0-2 (2fs); R Finn, P McWalter, D Hayden.
Meath – P O'Rourke 7; D Keoghan 7, K Reilly 7, B Menton 7; C Lenihan 7, C King 7, M Burke 7; B Meade 7, C Gillespie 7; P Byrne 7, D Carroll 7, G Reilly 8; E Wallace 7, S Bray 7, M Newman 7. Subs: P Harnan 7 for C Lenihan (h-t); S Kenny 7 for M Burke (h-t); B Farrell 7 for D Carroll (42); J Sheridan 6 for M Newman (62); P Gilsenan for P Byrne (66).
Wicklow – J Flynn 7; C Hyland 7, D Power 7, A Byrne 7; D Hayden 7, P MacWalter 7, D Healy 7; A McLoughlin 7, J Stafford 7; D O'Sullivan 7, R Finn 7, J Kelly 7; J McGrath 7, S Furlong 7, P Earls 7. Subs: J Dalton (not on long enough to rate) for D O'Sullivan (h-t); P Dalton 7 for J Dalton (inj 42); L Benson 7 for D Healy (48); B McCrea 7 for J Kelly (52); B Coen for S Furlong (68).
REF – C Lane (Cork)
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