Controversy abounds as Meath claim title in hectic final minutes

Mon, Jul 12, 2010, 01:00

LEINSTER SFC FINAL: Meath 1-12 Louth 1-10OTHER THAN that, Mrs Lincoln, was the play interesting? Croke Park’s volcanic climax to yesterday’s GAA Leinster football final fired enough volcanic ash into the atmosphere to obscure nearly everything: crowd misbehaviour, the touching distance within which Louth came of winning a first provincial title in 53 years and certainly Meath’s first Leinster since 2001.

What will be most vividly remembered of the 2010 final was compressed into a minute at the very end of the match with Louth getting ready to celebrate a deserved win – first over their neighbours in 35 years – and a resilient display.

Meath were throwing everything into chasing a lifeline at 0-12 to 1-10 with just seconds left. Graham Reilly lofted a dropping ball in on the Louth goal.

Séamus Kenny went up as if off a trampoline and caught a terrific possession. He wheeled around and got off a left-footed shot, which somehow opposing centrefielder Paddy Keenan blocked.

The ball spun up and Dessie Finnegan just couldn’t secure the ball whereupon Joe Sheridan flung himself at the ball, grabbed it and slid into the goal before dropping it over the line.

He didn’t get a boot to it and it wasn’t therefore a valid score. The umpires didn’t reach for the green flag.

With tumult breaking out referee Martin Sludden went in to consult his goal-line officials and must have instructed them otherwise because the goal was then signalled.

The match ended and with stewards and gardaí­ apparently slow off the mark Sludden was accosted by Louth players and assaulted by a supporter before being hustled away to the dressingroom where according to Croke Park stadium director Peter McKenna, “he was very shaken”.

Up to that point the completely unforeseen had been on the verge of taking place before a reasonable crowd of 48,875.

Meath had never got close to the form that had devastated Dublin last month and their prolific full forwards, authors of 5-5 from play that day, had a quiet and unproductive afternoon, their only score from play the contentious winner by an otherwise low-key Sheridan.

Louth showed far more penetration, creating good scoring opportunities but too often not availing of them, an inability that was to cost the county some heartbreak by the final whistle.

An improved second half had led to the underdogs overhauling Meath in the final 10 minutes. Andy McDonnell ended a period of paralysis with an equaliser in the 61st minute. Two minutes later, a long ball from Mark Brennan dropped in on the Hill goalmouth.

Defending centrefielder Brian Meade got a touch to it but it broke to JP Rooney, whose resplendent finish lodged the ball in the top right-hand corner for a 1-10 to 0-10 lead.

Cian Ward, after an erratic afternoon on placed-ball duty, replied almost immediately with two frees to cut the gap to a point but for the remaining minutes Meath showed little composure in tracking down the equaliser.

It wasn’t a particularly calm and collected few minutes for Louth either, as they wobbled on the precipice.

Corner-forward Colm Judge picked up a second yellow card – one of 12 flashed throughout the match – and was ordered off in the 69th minute and Brian White, who had an even less happy day with frees than Ward and missed four kickable awards, missed one early in injury time that would have given Louth some comfort.

It had been a strange match up until the last hectic 15 minutes. Superiority in play moved backwards and forwards between the teams for protracted periods, possession split evenly when the tallies were computed.

In the first half it looked as if Meath were beneficiaries of, as anticipated, making better use of their share.

Their fitful centrefield improved with captain Nigel Crawford back starting after injury and they probably got more from the area than expected against White and Paddy Keenan, the highly-rated Louth pair, who together with the largely contained Shane Lennon at full forward had been the key figures in their county’s progress to a first final since 1960.

In the battle for loose and breaking ball the initiative oscillated.

Meath’s half forwards got onto a pile of possession: Graham Reilly kicked four points from play in the first half, Stephen Bray two and Kenny hoovered up his usual quota of breaks.

Louth turned it around in the second quarter and after half-time Ray Finnegan, scorer of the cracking goal against Kildare, powered into the frame after his travails on Reilly, inspiring a focused and sharp response from his team-mates, who closed the gap in the nine minutes after half-time with two points (plus a bad wide) from White and one from Judge after Finnegan had whisked the ball from Crawford.

The lead fluctuated afterwards until the match entered its dramatic endgame.