Monday 20 November 2017

Meath celebrate for real after beating the count on way to Ring glory

Meath captain James Toher lifts the Christy Ring Cup yesterday. Photo: Piaras Ó Mídheach
Meath captain James Toher lifts the Christy Ring Cup yesterday. Photo: Piaras Ó Mídheach

Dermot Crowe

With pure guts and an invigorating hunger, Meath produced the bravest performance imaginable at Croke Park to win the Christy Ring Cup they thought they'd won three weeks earlier. Comebacks and resilience are part of the folklore of Meath football.

Yesterday their hurlers took a leaf from the same book, refusing to yield when everything seemed to be conspiring against them, before finally breaking a dogged Antrim resistance with the last three points. They won after extra-time by 4-21 to 5-17.

Mistakes are part of sport, as of life, and as the closing line of Billy Wilder's Some Like it Hot went: nobody's perfect. But when the error leaves a county heading home with a trophy only to find out it was all a bad dream, then even the GAA must break out in cold sweat at the human capacity for blunders.

The consequences of this particular refereeing miscalculation weren't of the scale visited upon Clare in 1998, when a mistake effectively derailed their bid to win a third All-Ireland in five years. But at least Clare didn't have the MacCarthy Cup on tour before being told, sorry, but you have to give it back - and play again.

All of which provided a surreal backdrop to yesterday's rematch, watched by a crowd of just 2,938. Boy did they, most of them Meath, make noise. And, boy, will the kids who were there to see it be inspired by the heroics of their countymen. They were a credit to their jersey. The captain, James Toher, who contributed hugely with 0-12 (11 frees), was lost for words at the presentation. What more could he add to what had been seen on the field?

Having celebrated in vain for three days after the first match, a result later declared null and void, now they can toast this victory without fear of it being taken from them. To come back from that situation is a testament to all involved. Not least because of how they had to battle for it, time and time again. This win earns them a place in next year's Leinster Championship round robin after a year in which they failed to reach any higher than fourth in the league's fourth tier.

Antrim led by nine points in the first match and were reeled in. This time they had a dream start with a goal from Ciaran Clarke after only three minutes. Meath's hurling wasn't of a kind to suggest they might turn around after the interval and produce the play they did. Their reliance on Toher's free-taking looked too much. Of their six first-half points, five were his from dead balls. Their only point from play came entering injury-time from midfielder Stephen Morris.

When Conor Johnston scored Antrim's second goal just before the short whistle, the Ulster men were eight points to the good. But the first half and the rest were like night and day. Meath stormed out and a goal from Neil Heffernan provided the spark they needed. By the time Niall McKenna pointed for Antrim in the 48th minute Meath had scored 1-4 without reply.

They were level four minutes later, 1-12 to 2-9, and then a brilliant move in the 56th minute resulted in Heffernan's second goal to give them the lead. From eight down, they moved four clear. Antrim kept plugging though, with McKenna's move into the full-forward line bringing three points in succession. And then, with three minutes left, a goal. Antrim were in front and Meath looked doomed.

Within a minute Stephen Clynch, one of their top forwards who couldn't start due to injury, broke through for a goal. Sean Quigley pointed and, three points up with a minute of injury-time remaining, they appeared to have their hands on the trophy. Instead, with the last puck they were sucker-punched again: Darren Hamill goaling and forcing extra-time.

Even with 19 wides threatening to sink them, Meath would not give up. Their fitness level was evident and in extra-time Gavin McGowan's goal put them back in front after Antrim had made the early running. Half-time in extra-time they led 4-17 to 4-15. Quigley put them three clear on the restart and then they watched in agony again as James Connolly rifled a goal for Antrim to level, virtually out of nothing.

This seemed like breaking point, Antrim moving two points clear in the next couple of minutes. But Clynch nailed a free, then Toher hit one from play with the game already in injury time after nearly 100 minutes played. Would they settle for that, a third day? This wasn't a script prepared to settle for expected conclusions. With the final play Joe Keena thieved the ball from Eoghan Campbell, was fouled, and Clynch held his nerve to strike the winner. Never has a team earned it more. For the record, the final score was: Meath 4-21, Antrim 5-17.

Scorers - Meath: J Toher 0-12 (11fs); N Heffernan 2-0, S Clynch 1-3 (0-2fs), G McGowan 1-0, A Gannon, S Quigley 0-2, S Morris, J Keena 0-1. Antrim: C Clarke 1-5 (0-1f; 0-1 '65'), N McKenna 1-5, C Johnston 1-2, D Hamill, J Connolly 1-0, D McKiernan 0-2, N Elliott, E Campbell, S McAfee 0-1.

Meath: S McGann; S Geraghty, R Sherlock, D Donoghue; S Brennan, K Keoghan, S Whitty; S Heavey, S Morris; J Keena, D Healy, A Gannon; G McGowan, N Heffernan, J Toher. Subs: S Clynch for Brennan (half-time); S Quigley for Heavey (46); M O'Grady for J Keena (72); J Keena for O'Grady (82); S Heavey for Heffernan (85).

Antrim: E Gillan; P Burke, T McCloskey, S McCrory; O McFadden, N McAuley, F Donnelly; E Campbell, E McCloskey; N McKenna, C Johnston, S McAfee; N Elliott, B McCarry, C Clarke. Subs: PJ O'Connell for Elliott (40 mins); D McKiernan for McCarry (49); J Connolly for T McCloskey (59); K Keena for Heffernan (65); D Hamill for McKenna (69); N McKenna for Johnston (half-time, extra-time); J Dillon for O'Connell (92).

Referee: C McAllister (Cork).

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