Meath and Down both have very decorated chapters in the history of the GAA. From Down’s record of having only lost one All Ireland SFC final, to Meath being the last county to win the old Sam Maguire and the first to collect the new.
There are further stanzas which could be added on both sides, but what some mightn’t realise is the way the fortunes of the two counties have intertwined successfully over the years too. With Sean Boylan having been involved alongside Conor Laverty with successful Down underage teams in most recent years and the great Joe Lennon lending his wisdom to Gormanstown College and St Pat’s of Stamullen.
On the pitch, it has been a rivalry which – although maybe not engaged too often – has always ebbed and flowed between one side and the other. From Meath’s victory in the 1990 NFL Final, to the men from the mountains of Mourne inflicting the most devastating defeat ever dolled to a Meath team the following year. Albeit aided and abetted by the miserly time keeping of the Leitrim referee.
To the best of my knowledge the sides didn’t meet in Championship fare again until 2007. On the night Shane O’Rourke made his first start at the highest level and the green and gold eventually edged through after a typically ding dong affair.
Their two most recent meetings – both in the National League – went along usual lines, with wildly contrasting consequences for the Royal County. A defeat in Pairc Elser one year costing them promotion, while a Jordan Morris free ended up saving them from relegation in the Spring of 2022.
Fast forward to today. Some will no doubt sneer at the presence of both sides in the Tailteann Cup, but, knowing the men managing both teams, it’s no surprise to see them embrace the Tier II Championship with enthusiastic positivity.
Throughout the Parnell Park encounter, it was very much a case of horses for courses for Meath. Just like his uncle Gerry in 1991, James McEntee put in a huge shift and came up with some pivotal plays when the fat was in the fire.
Also, Morris was again the go-to shooter for Colm O’Rourke’s side. The Nobber native was due a big game and when he lasered a penalty past Niall Kane after Ronan Jones was hauled down in front of goal, inclination it was going to be one of those days for the man who, to this observer, is like a cross between Tommy Dowd and Ray McGee.
Prior to that, Jack O’Connor again demonstrated his penchant for scoring rapidly after the throw while Mat Costello, Morris and McEntee accounted for Meath’s other first half scores.
At the other end, Liam Kerr registered the only score from play for the red and black in the first half, but the accuracy of custodian Kane and Pat Havern from dead balls ensured there was only the minimum between the sides at the break, 1-04 to 0-06.
Daniel Guinness quenched Down’s thirst for an equaliser with a delectable effort immediately after the restart and minutes later combined with Odhran Murdock beefed up the prospects of Laverty’s lads when cheekily netting past Sean Brennan.
To their credit, though, those who were 2/1 outsiders with the odds makers (thank you very much!) didn’t panic and terrific long range scores from Morris and substitute Daithi McGowan (free) tied up the sides heading into the final few furlongs of the contest.
Now, it would be slipshod not to mention that Meath got the rub of the green when Longford official Fergal Kelly very harshly chalked off a Down goal before half time. Not to mention the Ulster side’s uncharacteristic profligacy.
It would be very unfair, mind you, to pin Meath’s victory on either factor. Earlier this year, ar mBainisteoir was lampooned in certain quarters owing to the style of football he was trying to get our lads to play. I’ll admit to not being entirely in agreement with how he reacted to said noise but in fairness to him, right from the off he hasn’t pulled any punches or engaged in false promises.
Colm has made no secret of the fact that he envisages no quick fixes and that it could take “years” for his vision to come to fruition. But things are, albeit gradually, beginning to take shape.
The defence now not only has a structure to it, they are getting better as a unit with each outing. By dint of working to a system similar to what Sean employed with the wonderful team of which Colm was a crucial part. A gameplan founded on strength in numbers and ferocious tackling.
Not so much in a blanket defence methodology, more akin to what they call drift defence in rugby. It’s similar, but there are nuances. Still, the sight of trench warfare followed by various Meath men tunnelling out with possession was comfortingly familiar.
If there was one element of frustration for the Meath camp, I would suggest it would be that they didn’t tack on a few more three pointers. Particulary once instance after McEntee had effected a huge offencive turnover and there ensued a bout of pass the parcel in front of the Down goal, the upshot of which was a glorious goal chance coughed up.
Thereafter, a very similar move resulted in Cathal Hickey drawing a magnificent stop from Kane. With the resulting 45, McGowan made light of the tricky angle and whatever breeze there was at the Donnycarney venue to put Meath in front as the clock turned red.
Then, as often happens in these cases, a green and gold wave hoovered up the resulting kick out and, when Ronan Jones was hauled down at the end of a lung bursting run, another replacement, Donal Lenihan tapped over to close the scoring.
Was it a perfect performance? No. Will others be losing sleep about us? No. That doesn’t matter a jot though. Taken in local context, it is a positive step. Anytime you win three games in a row it has to be a good thing. Championship matches, even more so.
Momentum is often the greatest game changer. The trick now is to maintain and build on it.
MEATH – S. Brennan; A. O’Neill, R. Ryan, H. O’Higgins; D. Keogan, P. Harnan, S. Coffey; R. Jones, C. Gray; C. Caulfield, J. McEntee (0-2), J. O’Connor (0-1); J. Morris (1-3), M. Costello (0-1), A. Lynch.
SUBS – J. Flynn (0-1) for Caulfield, D. McGowan (0-2) for Gray, C. O’Sullivan for O’Connor, D. Lenihan (0-1) for Lynch, C. Hickey for McEntee.
Referee: Fergal Kelly (Longford)