Meath keep heads to deny luckless Mayo


FROM THE ARCHIVE 1996 ALL-IRELAND SFC FINAL REPLAY:A SAD and repetitive trend was confirmed at Croke Park: fate has it in for Connacht football. In yesterday’s Bank of Ireland All-Ireland football final replay, Mayo won more possession, launched more attacks, suffered more vicissitudes and yet kept coming back but still were beaten by a 70th-minute point – only the second time in over 140 minutes of play that Meath actually led Mayo, writes SEÁN MORAN

Too much can be read into the old hard-luck lament. For the 30 years since the All-Ireland last went West, a combination of misfortune, lack of self-confidence and even lack of footballing competence have all been brought forward as reasons for the absence of national achievement by the province.

Yesterday was different: a couple of ill-favoured decisions – justifiable in isolation but capricious in application – immeasurably complicated Mayo’s task of recovering the initiative they had lost during the drawn match and making good their superiority in many sectors of the field.

The scoreboard, however, determines prizes and by that criterion Meath took home their first All-Ireland in eight years and their sixth overall. For a team that had to cope with overwhelming favouritism on both days and a match that lurched massively in their direction after only seven minutes, Meath kept their heads in adversity and in characteristic style, chiselled out the narrowest of wins.

A good proportion of the difficulties was self-inflicted. It’s hard to believe that Liam McHale’s seventh-minute dismissal didn’t have a radical bearing on a one-point defeat. Man of the match in the drawn final a fortnight ago when he spearheaded the destruction of Meath’s vaunted midfield, he fell victim to justice of a rough, random but inarguable nature when he and Colm Coyle were jointly presented with the bill for an all-out brawl.

A plethora of mean blows were struck in the melee – and McHale left the pitch with a broken jaw – but after referee Pat McEnaney had consulted with his officials he was in no doubt about the correct course of action. He was right in many respects. If teams want to run the risk of engaging in gang warfare – maybe on the grounds that early in the match, no action will be taken – they can hardly complain when the referee takes a more stringent view. The problem here was that the consequences were disproportionate.

Any number of players might have been justly sent off after the outbreak but the roulette wheel stopped at one player who had been a disappointment in the drawn match and another who bad been his team’s dominant influence.

There are two likely reactions to this sort of a setback. One that might have been associated with Connacht football in recent times is the acceptance that the game is up and yet that everyone has their alibi. The excuse is there in an envelope. Mayo, to their credit, took the other path and doubled their efforts with players taking on added responsibility and kicking desperately against what looked like suffocating caprice.

Once again wing forwards James Horan, who added five points to his three a fortnight ago, and Maurice Sheridan, who also totalled five including four points from frees, contributed the bulk of the scores.

Morale was further sapped just after substitute PJ Loftus had splendidly taken Mayo’s goal at the end of the first half – a fine, long ball from Noel Connelly tipped into Loftus’s path by Anthony Finnerty.

As has happened before this season, the team went slack and within a minute goalkeeper John Madden had failed to take a high ball and Kenneth Mortimer fouled Tommy Dowd for a penalty, dispatched with nerveless aplomb by Trevor Giles.

Meath were making the most of scraps and ended the first half with three scores and only one point of their goal and two points coming from play. Conversely, Mayo’s self-inflicted wounds were already alarming. With David Brady rising to the occasion and the ceaseless Colm McManamon strongly taking up the slack caused by McHale’s unscheduled departure, Mayo had plenty of ball.

Allowances have to be made for systems going haywire after the sendings-off but even in the opening minutes, Mayo’s approach had looked dispiritingly similar to the hoof-it-and-see tactics of the first match. Time after time useless ball, ballooned up in front of the furious wind into which Meath had elected to play, was sent into a full-forward line that was badly positioned and too short of pace in the corners to retrieve anything from it.

McManamon as usual gave the match everything, and in the 23rd minute cleared a ball off his own goalline. But for all the possession he hoovered up, his distribution was ruinously out of kilter, especially in the first half.

Giles’s penalty cut Mayo’s interval lead to four points which looked inadequate in the face of the big wind. Sure enough, Dowd and Giles both scored points in the first 55 seconds of the second half and Meath looked well on their way. Mayo, however, dug in and fought out the match every inch of the way. Inspired by substitute Pat Fallon at midfield, they even began to open up gaping spaces in Meath’s defence.

In the matter of reputations, Meath’s full-back line, with Darren Fay again well in control, played very well, but elsewhere, there was little change. Midfield was again subdued despite the assistance of Colm Brady, and up front, the peerless Giles again top-scored, as well as putting in the usual work of three.

Brendan Reilly was this time reined in but got away to score the winner in typically dogged style – after Giles (inevitably) dispossessed McManamon – but captain Dowd gave his best performance of the season when restored to the full-forward line. His 1-3 from play supplemented the penalty he won and he generally gave Mortimer, so impressive the last day, a hard time.

The goal that effectively won the match was another bone of contention for Mayo. Pat Holmes, who once more played marvellously on Graham Geraghty, fouled his man and the Meath wing forward slipped a quick free into Dowd, who slid the ball to the net The quick free was waved on by referee McEnaney after an hour’s play during which he had disallowed most attempts at quickly-taken restarts.

The score pushed Meath ahead, 2-8 to 1-10, against the run of play. Mayo at that stage had hit upon a ferociously spirited pattern of running the ball through the heart of the opposition defence, with James Nallen, Brady, Fallon and John Casey, who worked frantically in a deep position in the second half, to the fore. Unfortunately for them, they were just too short of quality assassins up front.

Meath weren’t so bereft, as Reilly’s point proved, and despite a last-gasp Mayo onslaught, it also proved sufficient.

MEATH:C Martin; M O’Reilly, D Fay, M O’Connell; C Coyle, E McManus, P Reynolds; J McGuinness, J McDermott; T Giles (1-4, goal from penalty, two points from frees), T Dowd capt (1-3), G Geraghty; C Brady, B Reilly (0-1), B Callaghan (0-1). Subs: J Devine for Callaghan (66 mins), O Murphy for Reilly (71 mins).

MAYO:J Madden; D Flanagan, K Cahill, K Mortimer; P Holmes, J Nallen, N Connelly capt; L McHale, D Brady; J Horan (0-5), C McManamon, M Sheridan (0-5, four frees); R Dempsey. J Casey (0-1), A Finnerty. Subs: PJ Loftus (1-0) for Dempsey (28 mins), P Fallon for Flanagan (45 mins), T Reilly for Finnerty (69 mins).

Referee:P McEnaney (Monaghan).