Meath 1-10 Armagh 0-8
The Royals are sending out an early season warning sign. If winning is indeed a habit they’re getting pretty good at it and for Meath football that must be encouraging.
The morale draining defeats of last summer are certainly fading fast, this methodical dismantling of Armagh at stormy Pairc Tailteann coming fresh on the heels of last Sunday’s O’Byrne Cup triumph: few teams crave promotion back to division one this season more than Meath, these two early points perhaps even more valuable than their immediate worth.
Meath lost their opening game this time last year, and if a good start is half the battle, that must be encouraging too. Not that many people in Meath are looking too far ahead, least of all their manager Mick O’Dowd.
“It wasn’t always pretty,” said O’Dowd, “but really was all about the two points, getting a win in the first round, of the league, especially at home. We only have three home games, so that was an important win, for sure.
“I think every team in division two wants or should want to be in division one. If you want to achieve things, that’s where we need to be, we know that. It’s also so competitive a division this year it’s just getting points on the board, and getting to six, seven is the first priority.
“When you are there with two rounds to go, hopefully you are in with a shout for promotion. That’s the way I’d look on it.”
No, it wasn’t always pretty, although it was often pleasantly open football, the strong wind probably forcing both teams to simply get on with it. They effectively went man-on-man and there was precious little cynicism, most of the football more free-flowing than the Shannon estuary of late.
Armagh, last year’s division three champions, did finish with 14 men, captain Aidan Forker picking up a second yellow card in the closing minutes, although by then their challenge had died slow death. Aided by the wind in the first half, they went into the break with their noses in front, eight points to Meath’s 1-4 - only to go the entire second half with a single score. They hit the upright once and dropped a few shots short but ultimately were well beaten, the absence of some first-choice players plus the Crossmalgen contingent not helping their cause.
Indeed manager Kieran McGeeney can’t have had too many good things to say about his team’s performance, not that we got to hear them. He did pause briefly on exiting the Armagh dressing room, only to inform us all interviews were being conducted through a new PR crew: “It’s out of my hands,” he hands. “That was decided in advance.”
That PR crew, incidentally, were nowhere to be seen. Anyway, it is unlikely McGeeney would have been overly critical either, because the Armagh effort was still creditable. Michael McKenna, Gavin McParland and Stefan Campbell hit some nice points in the first half - again, mostly wind-aided - and as a whole the covered the soft with ease, clearly in good physical condition.
Yet Meath were easily the more balanced outfit. They played into the wind in the first half with great method and intent, epitomised by Mickey’s Newman’s goal after 10 minutes. Padraic Harnan delivered the pass and while Newman briefly lost control, he never lost sight of the goal - striking with great pace past Mathew McNeice.
Cillian O’Sullivan underlined his return to form during the O’Bryne Cup with anther stellar display, striking two lovely points from play in the first half when Meath needed them most. Captain Donal Keogan also raced up from defence an inspiring point from play, and despite losing Graham Reilly to a minor knee injury before the start (the man who scored six points last Sunday), Meath’s attack was never short of ideas. Sean Tobin also came off the bench early in the second half to add three brilliantly clinical frees which ultimately swing the result Meath’s way.
Newman finished with 1-4, including three frees, and Andrew Tormey and Harry Rooney displayed plenty of physicality around midfield. Mickey Burke was typically enthusiastic in defence, and leaves Meath heading to Fermanagh next week with ample confidence of driving on this promotional quest.
“In fairness to Armagh, they are down players,” added O’Dowd. “But they work hard, they don’t give up. so you are never really going to pull away from them too easy. It was good that we didn’t concede any scores against the wind, when they had the breeze in the second half, that was pleasing. To get a goal against the wind was very important too, and not to concede one when we had it.”
O’Sullivan’s sense and sensibility around the half forward line has certainly added a new dimension to Meath’s game: no wonder he was singled out for praise afterwards.
“Cillian was out of the game exactly two years ago this Sunday when we played the first round of the league against Galway,”” said O’Dowd. “Apart from the O’Byrne Cup this is obviously his first time back. He’s worked incredibly hard on his own to come back from the back injury and he’s a big addition to the group. It’s all credit to Cillian for his resilience and perseverance.”
It’s possible that Armagh will only get stronger as the league progresses, particularly as Crossmaglen players return, but few teams will turn their backs on January 2016 with the feeling of more wind in their sails than Meath.
MEATH: P O'Rourke; M Burke; C McGill, D Keogan (capt) (0-1); J McEntee, P Harnan, C Finn; A Tormey, H Rooney; D Smyth, C O'Sullivan (0-2), B Power; B McMahon M Newman (1-4, three frees), D Lenihan.
Subs: S Tobin (0-3, all frees) for Lenihan (41 mins), C Downey for McMahon (52 mins), R O Coileain for Smyth (66 mins), A Douglas for Finn (73 mins).
ARMAGH: M McNiece; S Heffron, C Vernon, R McCaughley; A Forker (capt), C O'Hanlon, M Shields; S Sheridan, B Donaghy; S Campbell (0-1), M McKenna (0-2), S Forker (0-1); C Watters (0-1), E Rafferty (0-1), G McParland (0-2).
Subs: A Findon for Sheridan, E McVerry for McParland (both half-time), J McElroy for Shields (50 mins), S Connell for Donaghy (52 mins), N McConville for Watters (57 mins), N Gormley for McKenna (72 mins, blank card)
Referee: Anthony Nolan (Wicklow).