Meath 0-16 Westmeath 0-15
With about 15 minutes to go in Navan, Meath manager Andy McEntee couldn’t be blamed for fearing the worst.
Without a league win in over two years and having suffered relegation in 2020 and finishingthe year with a Leinster final drubbing by Dublin, the Royals found themselves in bother again, four points down.
Led in scoring terms by John Heslin and Luke Loughlin - the latter's previous visit to Navan ending with the crucial goal in a Joe McDonagh Cup win for the hurlers last November - Westmeath looked primed for victory.
But a game that had simmered for the most part suddenly came to the boil thanks largely to the urgency of Meath’s subs who inspired a thrilling fightback win.
Fionn Reilly, a debutant, began a surge of scoring and fellow sub Eamon Wallace kicked what proved to be the Meath winner in the 71st minute.
In all, Meath kicked seven of the game’s last nine points to secure what was their first win in the league since beating Fermanagh in March of 2019.
“With 10 or 15 minutes to go it probably didn’t look good for us,” acknowledged McEntee. “The league or the mini-league, whatever you want to call it, you win your first game and you’re in a good position but you lose your first game and you’re under pressure straight away. So how important was it to win that game? It was huge.”
It was a winning start to life as Meath captain for Shane McEntee, son of the manager.
Yet for long spells it was far from vintage Meath who kicked just five points from play until Reilly, from the Gaeil Colmcille club in Kells, began that run of late scores.
Up to then, Westmeath, leading 0-8 to 0-7 at half-time, had looked the more likely to win with Heslin, Loughlin, Ger Egan and Ray Connellan all providing inspiring moments.
Former AFL player Connellan boomed over a 53rd minute point to put Westmeath three clear and then floated the long delivery to Loughlin to put them four ahead.
Meath’s Division 1 experience, conditioning and squad depth perhaps kicked in from there to help the hosts claim a belated league win.
"We went down to 14 men for 10 minutes," said Westmeath manager Jack Cooney, noting Sam Duncan's black card in the 50th minute. "Even though we held the status quo pretty well for that period, there was a huge amount of fatigue the far side of it because you were working so hard. I think that was a factor."
Meath: A Colgan (0-1, free); S Lavin, C McGill, R Ryan; D Keogan, S McEntee, E Harkin (0-1); B Menton (0-1), P Harnan; E Devine, D Campion (0-1), M Costello (0-1); J Morris (0-3, three frees), T O'Reilly (0-1, free), C O'Sullivan (0-2, one free). Subs: B McMahon (0-2, one free) for O'Reilly (half-time, J Conlon (0-1) for Campion (half-time), J Scully for Costello (51 mins), F Reilly (0-1) for Harkin (51), E Wallace (0-1) for Devine (58), J O'Connor for Morris (68), D Dillon for O'Sullivan (75).
Westmeath: J Daly; J Smith, K Maguire, B Sayeh; J Dolan, R Wallace (0-1), J Gonoud; S Duncan, R Connellan (0-1); D Lynch, R O'Toole (0-1), D Corroon; G Egan (0-2), J Heslin (0-7, five frees), L Loughlin (0-3, two 45s). Subs: K Martin for Lynch (54 mins), L Dolan for Smith (63), B Kelly for Egan (75).
Referee: B Cawley (Kildare).