Meath get the job done
But Royals routine defeat of Offaly fails to lift Leinster football gloom
THESE are parlous times for Leinster football, and nothing we saw in O'Moore Park yesterday will have lifted the pall of pessimism surrounding the province's chances of ending that 11-year All-Ireland famine any month soon.
Not that Eamonn O'Brien -- a selector under Seán Boylan for that Meath success in 1999 -- will unduly worry about the bigger picture this evening.
Yesterday was all about avoiding a first-round Offaly ambush and securing safe passage to a Leinster SFC quarter-final date with Laois in Croke Park on June 13.
To say this target was achieved with a minimum of fuss is a slight fallacy -- the Meath defence looked decidedly ropey in a first half that saw them leak two goals and almost a third on the stroke of half-time.
Yet, ultimately, progress came routinely for a variety of reasons: their defence was somewhat less porous than Offaly's, their midfield dominated for long spells, and this provided an amply supply of possession which their four scoring forwards happily feasted upon.
Oh, and here are two more reasons why Offaly left Portlaoise cursing a 10-point defeat -- a horrendous day at the free-taking office for Niall Darby and a horrible end to his SFC debut for John Coughlan.
You might well argue that both blows were self-inflicted, although losing boss Tom Cribbin clearly begs to differ.
"Like tearing the heart out of the team" was how Cribbin described the moment when Coughlan -- the former Dublin minor star imported from Malahide under the parentage rule -- saw red. He also claimed that Longford referee Derek Fahy "destroyed a very good quality game" in that instant.
Now, Cribbin is probably correct in his assertion that Coughlan's 39th minute dismissal had a pivotal bearing: from a position where they led by just two points, it was then easy street for Meath who had the extra man to suffocate the space in front of Niall McNamee and Ken Casey.
However, his suggestion that red wasn't warranted is more open to debate. Anthony Moyles was in possession when Coughlan went in for the tackle, and ended up connecting with his forearm/elbow.
People in the main stand at Portlaoise had an obstructed view and reacted with amazement to the referee's decision, but armchair texters were quickly on the phone expressing the view that it was a justifiable sending-off.
Cribbin begged to differ, suggesting Coughlan had caught Moyles as a result of his forward momentum -- more with the "front forearm" than elbow, and certainly not your typical backward elbow motion.
"You feel gutted for a team when it turns on an incident like that," the Offaly boss lamented, before focusing his ire on another Fahy (non) decision: blowing for half-time after Niall McNamee's effort was saved low down by Meath keeper Paddy O'Rourke.
"Just before half-time it looked like the referee signalled for a penalty. Like, did you ever see a referee before in your life blow up for half-time and hold the hands out wide as if he's given a penalty?" Cribbin rhetorically asked.
He wasn't the only bemused onlooker, but in fact the Longford whistler had blown for the midpoint with Meath ahead by 0-11 to 2-3.
By that stage, perverse as it may seem, Offaly might actually have led despite being outplayed for long stretches. Meath had coasted into a five-point lead before goals from Brian Connor (21 minutes) and Ken Casey (34 minutes) gave the Division Three underdogs a foothold in the game.
Yet errant free-taking haunted their comeback aspirations. Niall Darby converted two first-half frees (including his most difficult attempt, from the right touchline) but missed another three -- two of the 'sitter' variety. He fluffed a fourth during the third quarter before his almost inevitable substitution.
Darby's travails were in stark contrast to the magnificence of Cian Ward's deadball striking. Seven of his eight points came from frees, and these included two effortless conversions from distance, another from the 'wrong' wing and yet another sublimely judged curler from way out on the left flank.
The other major plus for Eamonn O'Brien was the pivotal contribution of his captain. With official confirmation looming of Jason Sherlock's exit from the Dublin fold, Nigel Crawford is now the only All-Ireland senior winner from Leinster blazing a trail at this level. The Dunboyne man still has plenty to offer, too, based on his consistently effective performance here.
Aided by a strong midfield platform and abetted by some glaring defensive turnovers from Offaly, the Meath forwards were able to amass the type of tally (1-20) that would win most hurling matches.
With 0-4 from play, the injury-haunted Shane O'Rourke clearly enjoyed his first SFC start since 2007. Stephen Bray (0-2) consistently had the beating of Shane Sullivan. And, while Joe Sheridan has enjoyed better days in green, he still finished as the game's top scorer from play -- his three first-half points crowned by Meath's only goal after 68 minutes.
The Meath forwards can expect a much sterner examination against Laois, and likewise their full-back line which tottered during the first half here. Their manager is hopeful that all his injured players will be back in contention then: he could certainly do with Kevin Reilly and Cormac McGuinness to stiffen his defensive spine.
Afterwards, O'Brien declared himself happy with the overall performance, picked out Crawford and Cian Ward for favourable mention, and seemed to concur with his counterpart when saying: "The sending-off probably changed the course of the game, in the sense that it enabled us to defend more easily and to build a platform for victory."
Both managers also appeared of a like mind on this infuriating new hand-pass rule -- that players must try and fist at all times, for fear of the consequences.
Fahy was strict on enforcement, especially during the third quarter, and players on both sides clearly felt aggrieved with his interpretation.
"It's going to take a while to get used to what's right, but I'm not sure we know what's right at this stage either," said O'Brien, while Cribbin declared: "I think we all know, if you want to cut out the hand-pass fouls, that you have to keep the fist closed. It's a lottery with the referees. That's not their fault; that's what they're being told as well."
As for Offaly, the lottery of the back door awaits. This was their heaviest defeat in Leinster since losing to Meath by 12 points in '98 -- it doesn't get any easier for the long-suffering Faithful.