Royals earn their step up in class after easy victory
Christy Ring Cup final: Meath 4-19 Down 2-15
If there was a moment that stood for the whole game, it arrived 72 minutes into this contest, long after the engraver was getting to work on the Christy Ring Cup.
Meath's Joey Keena plucked a ball out of the sky, handpassed to teammate Callum O'Sullivan, whose close-range shot was stopped by Down goalkeeper Stephen Keith.
But O'Sullivan swiftly stepped in and swatted the rebound past Keith, who could only watch from the ground as the chasm between the sides grew to double figures.
It was the kind of blow a youthful and spirited Down side probably didn't deserve - the previous half-hour had already seen them punch themselves out against a far superior opponent.
Indeed, there had been a sense throughout this year's Christy Ring campaign that Meath didn't belong at this level, their presence never likely to be anything but fleeting. So it proved: five games, five wins, and a ticket back to the Joe McDonagh Cup next year.
They say it's not bragging if it's true, and there was nothing excessive about the assessment of Meath manager Nick Fitzgerald. "We've shown throughout we are the leading light in this competition," he said. "I don't think anyone could begrudge us a 10-point win."
From the start, Down looked every inch what they are: a work in progress. The Croke Park stage causes some to bloom, others to recoil into themselves like a scared tortoise - they were the latter. Meanwhile, Meath hurried through their work like employees who thought this job was beneath them.
Barry Slevin, Jack Regan, Damien Healy and Adam Gannon all took points in the opening minutes to make Down wonder what they'd signed up for, and by the 14th minute they were on the canvas. Gannon turned Tom Murray inside out on the left flank and made a beeline for goal, burying his shot past Keith. It was the beginning of a reign of attacking terror from Gannon.
By 22 minutes Down had a grand total of one point on the board and were 10 points in arrears. The easy thing would have been to roll over, but they didn't. They clawed their way back, and had a sliver of light shortly before half-time when Eoghan Sands was dragged down near goal. Paul Sheehan buried the resulting penalty.
Minutes later Dáithí Sands broke past two Meath defenders before finding the same bottom corner of the net, leaving Down just a point behind at the break: 2-8 to 1-12.
But as the Meath manager watched the life drain out of the game before half-time, he knew it was time for fresh legs - in came 18-year-old Nicholas Potterton, who injected life into Meath's attack. Soon after the interval Gannon blitzed past two defenders and squared the ball to Potterton, who buried his chance.
Down wouldn't go away, though, and hit the next three points to draw within two after 40 minutes. But that was as good as it got.
They could do little about what happened next, a long-range shot from Alan Douglas rebounding off the upright and into the path of Gannon, the wily poacher, who didn't need telling how to get a green flag waving.
By then the fight had left Down, Meath turning on the style as subs Potterton, O'Sullivan and Keena started to put the match out of sight. Down could only manage a single point in the last 20 minutes, while Meath shot the lights out, putting six more over to draw seven clear as full-time approached.
With 72 minutes played Keena combined with O'Sullivan to throw salt on the wound. Job done for the Royals.
"They showed their mettle today," said Fitzgerald. "We have the tried and tested players and I always felt if we got on top of that Down team we could dispose of them, but credit to them, they fought back into it. But having come down from the Joe McDonagh last year, we set our sights on this as a must-win, not a hope-to-win. I'm just thrilled for those players."
Scorers - Meath: A Gannon 2-3; J Regan 0-9 (5f, 2 '65); N Potterton 1-1; C O'Sullivan 1-0; B Slevin 0-2; A Douglas, D Healy, J Keena, S Brennan 0-1 each. Down: P Sheehan 1-8 (1-0 pen, 6f); D Sands 1-1; D Toner, M Fisher (1f) 0-2 each; E Sands, O McManus 0-1 each.
DOWN - S Keith; T Murray, C Taggart, D Mallon; M Fisher, J McManus, M Conlon; P Savage, L Savage; D Toner, P Sheehan, T Prenter; D Sands, E Sands, O McManus. Subs: G Hughes for Savage (22), M Patterson for Murray (ht), C O'Prey for Prenter (42), R Blair for McManus (61), R McCusker for Sheehan (65).
MEATH - S McGann; G Murphy, D Kelly, S Whitty; S Brennan, K Keoghan, J Kelly; S Geraghty, C McCabe; D Healy, B Slevin, J Regan; C McGowan, A Douglas, A Gannon. Subs: N Potterton for Slevin (h-t), S Morris for Kelly (50), J Keena for McGowan (50), C O'Sullivan for Gannon (61), C Ó Mealóid for Douglas (70) REF - S Stack (Dublin)