Inspirational Cavanagh gives Tyrone the edge over battling Meath
Veteran produces an outstanding display to help Mickey Harte’s men into the quarter-final
Meath’s Graham Reilly tackles Tyrone’s Matthew Donnelly during the qualifier at Croke Park. Photograph: Donall Farmer/Inpho
Suddenly Tyrone look like men who went to pull a book off the shelf only to find it turning the whole wall around to reveal a secret passageway. Thoroughly outplayed against Donegal, with ho-hum victories against Offaly and Roscommon to follow, they go into August with the good of serious back-to-back sparring sessions to carry them.
Next up are Monaghan, who haven’t beaten them since 1988. As scenic routes go, it will have them lean and hungry should they make the last four.
They were made to earn every penny of their 0-17 to 2-9 win over Meath on Saturday night. Seán Cavanagh had one of those evenings where you remember why people were comparing him to Jack O’Shea before he’d even seen his 21st birthday. With his brother Colm as a willing domestique, he charged forward with possession countless times to either kick his own score, set up a team-mate or draw a foul. He finished with eight points, including six immaculate frees.
“Whenever the team was struggling, he just broke the line,” said Mickey Harte. “He took on responsibility. He didn’t ask anything of the players - he said, ‘Look at me go’. That’s really what he did. He was probably Brian Dooher and Peter Canavan and Brian McGuigan all rolled into one today. He just did the things that needed to be done and did them with authority and did them for the 70 minutes.”
Every drip and drop of Cavanagh’s contribution was present in the clear water that existed between the sides at the end.
It needed to be, for Meath managed to remain a factor in the game even though only three of their players scored, just two of them from play. Mick O’Dowd’s side were full of brio early in both halves but the game gradually drifted beyond them. That Tyrone never quite managed to snip the rope and cast them out to sea says only good things about their future.
Meath were a goal up here after just six minutes. It came about through the one foolproof route to goal they would enjoy all night – a diagonal ball to Mickey Newman who was smartly out in front of Conor Clarke, a quick transfer to the onrushing Eamonn Wallace and the fastest gun in the east leaving the cover for dead before an emphatic finish.
This is Wallace and Newman’s team now. Joe Sheridan and Brian Farrell came and went without leaving any serious mark on the game and Stephen Bray’s sole contribution was an improbable point from the sideline late in the first half.
By contrast, Wallace ended the day with 1-3 to his name and Newman either scored or had the last pass for all but one of Meath’s points. O’Dowd has plenty to work with come the winter.
Plenty to work on, too. Despite the early goal, Tyrone got to grips with the game more impressively. Cavanagh kicked five points in 11 minutes coming up to half-time, two of them from play after his patented sidestep shuffle bought him a yard of space to shoot.
Meath went nearly the full half-hour after Wallace’s goal to score again from play, Bray’s miracle point making it 0-9 to 1-4. Tyrone hit right back with another couple on the bounce from Mattie Donnelly and Darren McCurry to give them a four-point cushion at the break.
But when Newman smashed home a penalty four minutes into the second half, Meath were back to within a point.
Wallace was outstanding in the second half and his two points on the spin put Meath 2-7 to 0-12 ahead on 51 minutes.
But Tyrone replied with four points in a row to go 0-16 to 2-7 ahead but Wallace and Newman pulled Meath back to within a point with five to go.
In the end, they couldn’t quite bridge the gap. Newman hit the post, Paddy O’Rourke tried and failed to point a free from all of 70 metres. By the time Newman had a pot at one of his own from around 60 metres soon after, it was obvious that Tyrone’s packed defence had strangled the ideas out of Meath’s attack.
It was fitting that Cavanagh finished the game off, a spiralling free on 70 minutes buying them a two-point win. They’re not motoring just yet and won’t win the All Ireland unless Stephen O’Neill recaptures his league form sometime soon.
But they’re still here, still a sticky question to which no team has a handy answer.