Cork 0-19 Meath 3-14
It is hard imagine a league game at the end of January having meaning, let alone a personality, but Gaelic football’s new order has opened an horizon of possibilities. On a pet day, and on a fast pitch, two teams who could amount to anything or nothing produced a heart-warming match, full of splendid scores and permissive defending. It might be delirious to call it a spectacle, but the thought crossed our minds.
The threat of falling into the Tailteann Cup will stalk at least half of the teams in Division Two, and the prospect of cagey, suffocating football might hang over this league in weeks to come, but there were no traces of that mood in Páirc Uí Chaoimh. Meath produced some sparkling finishing in the final quarter to reverse the momentum of a game that had been mostly out of their control. Two goals in a frantic 10-minute spell turned the game on its head.
Cork finished the weekend as the second highest scorers in Division Two, which is a worthless bouquet. The Cork manager, John Cleary, said afterwards that conceding three goals was the furthest thing from his mind, and when Cork acquired the services of Kevin Walsh from Galway it was assumed that he would make them harder to break down. In the event, Cork were carved open.
None of this looked likely at half-time, when Meath trailed by two points, 0-11 to 1-6, having played with the aid of the breeze. They scored just twice in the opening 20 minutes, and Cork had more than enough possession and territory to put themselves into a commanding position. Instead, they left the door open and Meath were a different proposition in the second half, raising the intensity of their tackling and playing with more freedom.
“The players in the first half were very nervous,” said Colm O’Rourke, the new Meath manager. “Even before the game – even though we didn’t say much to them – they were very nervous in the dressingroom and it seemed to come out in their play. [At half-time] we were just saying to them, ‘Listen lads, settle down and play.’ Go and play. That was just the message at half-time. There was no big tactics or anything, ‘Relax, go out there, enjoy yourselves and play.’”
Meath drew level early in the second half, before Cork steadied themselves again and pulled a couple of points clear. In the first three quarters Meath had led for just three minutes, staying in the game with some lightning counterattacks. Cork, though, had kept them at arm’s length for the most part, and there was no urgent threat to that pattern until Ian Maguire was turned over inside the Cork 65, midway through the second half.
Jason Scully carried the ball through the heart of the Cork defence and Jordan Morris applied a cool finish from close range. Immediately from the restart Cork created their best goalscoring chance of the game, but Colm O’Callaghan’s shot was blocked, and when the rebound broke to Seán Powter his palmed effort sailed into the arms of Harry Hogan in the Meath goal.
Meath kicked the next three points and, half-dazed, Cork went 10 minutes without a score. Just when they were starting to get their bearings again, Meath struck for their third goal.
Forced to chase the game Cork left more and more spaces at the back, and Meath had the wherewithal to exploit it. Cillian O’Sullivan made a surging 30-metre run, without feeling the burn of a tackle, and his shot flew into the top corner. That put Meath six points up with less than 10 minutes left and in football, a lead like that so late in the game is unassailable.
There was a lot of promise in this Meath performance. Shane Walsh, who finished the game with 1-7, including a really smart first-half goal, was a constant threat. Morris came to life in the second half, too, and O’Sullivan was tireless around the middle third.
Cork were really dynamic at times, especially in the first half. Mattie Taylor was magnificent at wing back, but 14 of their scores came from the boot of the excellent Steven Sherlock; in contrast Brian Hurley, the leader of the Cork attack, was reduced to just one shot. For Cork those numbers don’t add up.
CORK: M Martin; M Shanley (0-1), D O’Mahony, K O’Donovan; S Meehan, R Maguire, M Taylor (0-1); C O’Callaghan, I Maguire; E McSweeney, S Powter (0-1); B O’Driscoll, C Óg Jones (0-2), B Hurley, S Sherlock (0-14, 10 frees, one 45).
Subs: T Walsh for O’Donovan (43 mins), L Fahy for R Maguire, J O’Rourke for McSweeney (both 52), C O’Mahony for Hurley (61), R Deane for Powter (66).
MEATH: H Hogan; J O’Hare, M Flood, C Hickey (0-1); E Harkin, D Keogan, D O’Neill; R Jones, D McGowan; C O’Sullivan (1-1), J Scally, D Campion; J Morris (1-2), M Costello (0-2, one free), S Walsh (1-7, two frees, one mark).
Subs: H O’Higgins for O’Hare, J O’Connor (0-1) for Harkin (both 48 mins), A O’Neill for D O’Neill (h-t), D Moriarty for McGowan (55 mins), S Crosby for O’Sullivan (66).
Referee: B Cawley (Kildare).