| 8.8°C Dublin

Laois put Banty on the brink

WHO'D have believed it? Laois, from sneaking past Carlow and Leitrim, down the highways and byways of the qualifiers, through the back door and into an All-Ireland quarter-final against the reigning champions.

Meath, all youth and bluster in slaying Kildare, now gone from view not a month later.

Their embattled manager who had, apparently, proved all the doubters wrong writes off a season with a loss to Laois and, according to informed local reports, bid adieu to the players he has led through a colourful -- if not wholly progressive -- two years on Saturday night.

Laois are, apparently, back. Or at least back in the last eight of the All-Ireland, a curious presence given their wholly unconvincing start and middle to the year.

Sport is, of course, all about timing and Laois's has been spot on, aided -- no doubt -- by what Justin Nulty termed "a handy draw", but there was no denying that Saturday in Tullamore was their finest performance of the Armagh man's reign to date.

Now, they have the Dubs in Croker. A match not only will nobody expect them to win, but at a point in the year when very, very few still expected them to be involved.

The relevant omens, however, are pretty good.

They were assured and purposeful in the first half in ensuring Meath became the latest in a long succession of teams to fail to conquer the six-day turnaround and mature and battling in the second when the Royals mounted their now customary comeback.

Mostly, they worked the ball through the hands rather than let in early ball to Pádraig Clancy, despite the aid of a strong wind.

Billy Sheehan linked the play effectively and ran hard. Brendan Quigley and Colm Begley forged a platform by dominating their men in midfield and in Ross Munnelly, they had a player for whom the elements acted as a propeller for his already pristine boot.

Twice he pointed from outside the '45, stinging cracks across Meath's collective bow.

"You don't like to think the toss of a coin is going to be a big difference but yes, certainly, whoever was going to play with the breeze today was always going to go in front," reflected Banty.

"I felt the breeze was a five-point breeze," he added but, as it happened, Laois managed to stretch it to nine.

Munnelly struck a penalty expertly past David Gallagher in the 22nd minute after the Meath 'keeper had coughed up possession and then fouled Colm Kelly.

Meath, meanwhile, were being largely confined to frees from Brian Farrell. And that Farrell, Joe Sheridan and Cian Ward all failed to score from play -- as did their entire starting half-forward line -- was either a damning indictment of their performance or a sparkling reflection of the Laois defence.

Probably the latter is more accurate. Laois were assured in defence, none more so than Kevin Meaney who, by our reckoning, put out more fires than anyone else, snaffled plenty of breaks and led with cool composure when coming out with possession.


Ditto Cahir Healy and Darren Strong. In the second half, when need dictated, they hit far up the pitch and fouled smartly when it was the obvious option, a fact reflected by the statistic that Meath had twice as many frees as Laois over the 70 minutes while the yellow card ratio finished 8:1.

Not only did Laois make the most of their wind advantage then, they promptly came out and kicked the first three points of the second half too, a blitz which, until Peadar Byrne's late late goal, kept Meath at a couple of arms length.

"Those points after half-time for Laois were crucial," Banty bemoaned.

Physically, Meath never flopped or fulfilled the six-day prophecy but mentally, perhaps the loss to Dublin took too much out of them.

"I won't use it as an excuse lads," their soon-to-be-ex-manager insisted.

"I can tell you, we would have played for another 15 minutes out there had we got an opportunity. We would have played away, no bother to us."

Byrne's goal -- his fourth in this year's championship -- caused minor pandemonium but the chances of Meath getting a second with Laois so ravenously protecting the area in front of Eoin Culliton were remote.

"It was disappointing as well that we didn't float those last few balls in on top of Joe to see whether we could get another goal out if it," Seamus McEnaney admitted while McNulty was pleased that the wide count from the previous week's near-calamity in Leitrim was halved.

"Guys just kept on going," he explained. "Last week we missed a bit, but I keep saying that you cannot score if you don't go for it."

And going for it will surely be the theme within the Laois camp this week. They will be the biggest underdogs of the round by a country mile, unfaniced both outside and within their own boarders.

Still, rarefied and all as the air is on the August bank holiday weekend, it's quite a distance from losing to Longford in Leinster a couple of months back.

"Coming home the evening Longford beat us it was difficult to see us in this position," McNulty admitted, "but the team kept believing and kept working hard.

"When you get a group of guys together with that belief it is amazing what you can achieve."

They now have a rare opportunity to make their season truly amazing.