Wednesday 22 November 2017

Banty refines Royal panel

WITH Bord na Móna now sponsoring our beloved O'Byrne Cup, it's only fitting that all evidence alluding to the existence of yesterday's quarter-final at Páirc Tailteann be piled on a turf-laden bonfire and set ablaze.

Flimsy match programmes, reporters' notebooks, the lot ... and let's pretend this match never even happened.

Was it really that bad? Well, almost. Suffice to say, this wasn't the third cousin of a local derby firecracker. It wasn't even a slow-burner, more a damp squib without the rain.

As the 0-11 to 0-5 scoreline suggests, Meath advanced at their leisure to a semi-final date with DCU, back in Navan next Sunday (2.0). They could have won by even more but, for the middle of January, they were at least adequate.

Louth, though, were borderline hopeless. Yes, they were shy a slew of familiar names. Yes, it was their seasonal baptism whereas Meath had the advantage of last weekend's cobweb-removing opener against Wexford.

But for much of this error-strewn contest, you were left wondering how did Louth come within one infamous decision of actually beating Meath in that notorious 2010 Leinster final?

Over the coming months, the Royals will seek to preserve their NFL Division Two status with far less panic than last spring. On this evidence, newly-promoted Louth face a gargantuan struggle to avoid a speedy return trip to Division Three.

"Well, I'd be optimistic," declared Seamus McEnaney, embarking on his second year in the Meath hotseat. "Because if you weren't optimistic we could improve on last year, you wouldn't be very optimistic!

"I've had a decent length of time to have a look at all the players in Meath.

"We went through 100 players last year. I've a very tight panel of 28 to 29 players at the moment; been able to keep a very, very tight eye on the job; I'm really happy with the panel of players I've in."

Meath started without most of their established marquee forwards. A notable exception was Graham Reilly, good enough to earn a Young Footballer of the Year nomination in 2010 before being snared by injury and a loss of form last season.

From the fifth minute, when Reilly combined with Paddy Gilsenan to knock over Meath's opening point, the livewire centre-forward looked in the mood.

The St Colmcille's man finished with 0-5 from play. Two second-half efforts stemmed from penetrating bursts through a couple of would-be tacklers; another was a cheeky soccer-style thump from over 20 metres. "He has trained exceptionally well for the last couple of weeks, and we'd be hoping that you would see a different Graham Reilly in 2012 than we saw in 2011," McEnaney remarked.

Stephen Bray, back from injury and introduced as an early sub, betrayed signs of first-half hesitancy but gradually found his feet and finished with 0-3 from play. "You can see that Stephen just needs games," McEnaney surmised.


Reilly departed on 63 minutes to the second loudest applause of the day. The loudest, some eight minutes earlier, was reserved for the introduction of retired-legend-cum-prodigal-player-selector Graham Geraghty.

"We weren't sure whether it (the cheer) was for Mark Ward coming off or Geraghty going in!" quipped his manager. "He's working hard and he's going to have to work hard because if he wants to stay in the (match-day) 20 ... he is going to have to bully out somebody, or the four fellas coming back in this week."

For the record, the four returning to Meath training tomorrow night are Joe Sheridan, Cian Ward, Kevin Reilly and Seamus Kenny. All big names, McEnaney agreed, before warning: "Names aren't going to carry them anywhere. They are going to get it hard to knock a few of those fellas off their seats. And that's exactly what we want.

"It's very pleasing, the last couple of weeks, and we've made no secret about it -- we want to win every single match. Challenge matches, games in training, whatever the case may be."

In truth, they never looked like losing this one. They led 0-5 to 0-1 after a turgid first half. Louth's only scorer, Ronan Holdcroft, was duly replaced at the break along with two team-mates. The visitors marginally shaded the first-half wide count and were way ahead on crass turnovers.

Their finishing improved on the resumption, even if Meath were now lording the kickout battle and essentially cruising.

"There's a lot of disappointed heads in there," admitted Louth boss Peter Fitzpatrick, "but you're playing Meath in their own back garden -- a big, strong, physical team.

"We'll take a lot from today's game ... we know we have to fix a lot of things and we will fix them over the next few weeks."

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