Meath agony is Monaghan ecstasy

INSTEAD of a mere appetiser at Croke Park, we were served a veritable feast, with a twist in the tale that will rank alongside any of Croke Park’s surreal climaxes.

For over 73 minutes, Meath and Monaghan gave a superb display of football, one which we never usually dare hope for from a league final let alone a Division Two decider.

As so often in the past, Meath seemed to have done just enough to nick the honours.

With Monaghan trailing by two points, referee Aidan Mangan approached their half-forward Paul Finlay to inform him that his free kick from 50 yards out would effectively be the last action of the match.

Finlay's speculative lob into the danger area seemed a couple of yards too long for his colleagues to fight over. All that was left was for a Meath defender to collect the dropping ball and find a row in the stand any row.

Instead, young Mark Ward elected to punch the leather over the bar and only succeeded in deflecting it into his own net.

For the briefest of moments, Croke Park fell silent as almost 45,000 people attempted to compute what had just happened.

It was only then that a deep guttural roar escaped from thousands of Monaghan throats and the pitch invasion that followed was almost a carbon copy of Clare's deliverance 10 Septembers ago. How Monaghan would react if they won Sam itself doesn't bear thinking about.

"Every team deserves the rub of the green," said Monaghan captain Damien Freeman after he finally found his way to the steps of the Hogan to collect the trophy. "It's a long time since Monaghan have had it." Too true, but it was the cruellest of cruel blows for Meath and Ward particularly.

Like all the substitutes yesterday, Ward had contributed handsomely to a spectacle that got better with every passing minute. The replacements on both sides contributed 1-7 to the final scoreboard, with Ollie Murphy adding 1-2.

Murphy's performance will provide a balm of sorts for a disappointed Sean Boylan and with Niall Kelly and Trevor Giles also putting in an effective day's work, the Meath manager will be encouraged that Meath can again joust for summer honours.

It's at the other end where his headaches lie. With Nigel Crawford absent with a stomach injury, Darren Fay was parachuted into midfield to dovetail with Anthony Moyles.

Even with Finlay and Thomas Freeman wreaking havoc on the Meath full-back line, Boylan declined against withdrawing Fay to his more familiar environs, recognising that to do so would be effectively robbing Peter to pay Paul.

Despite the impressive first-half performances of Gary McQuaid and Damien Freeman down their right flank, Monaghan were every bit as porous at the back. That each surrendered two goals apiece before the break was no surprise, although Monaghan held a narrow advantage at 2-6 to 2-5 going down the tunnel.

When their feet finally touch terra firma again, Seamus McEneaney's side will reflect on their ability to claw Meath back after the Leinster team's dominance on the re-start.

Murphy was their chief antagoniser, claiming Meath's third goal in the process. By the 41st minute they found themselves four points in front.

Monaghan rallied impressively with corner forward Dick Clerkin's repositioning in midfield playing a large part in that.

Five of the next six points fell to the Ulster men to bring them level before Meath again positioned themselves for what looked to be the defining last push.

Three Meath points followed in the last six minutes, one of them coming from young Ward's right boot.

Monaghan's Hugh McElroy also had the chance to put his name up in lights, but the substitute elected instead to tap over the bar when the open net begged to be rustled.

With under a minute of normal time left and two points adrift, Monaghan's chance seemed to have gone west.

Little did we know then that the drama was only beginning.

MONAGHAN: S Duffy, G McQuaid, V Corey, C Flanagan; D Freeman, J Coyle, J Ward; F Duffy, J McElroy; P Finlay (1-4, all frees), T Freeman (2-3), S McManus (0-1); D McArdle, R Ronaghan, D Clerkin (0-3).

Subs: M Daly for McManus 35, N Corrigan (0-1) for D Ward 45, D McKernan (0-1) for Ronaghan 55, H McElroy (0-1) for J McElroy 64, G McGowan for Corey (yellow) 64.

MEATH: D Gallagher; B O'Reilly, K O'Reilly, S McGabhann; N McLoughlin, D Crimmins, C King; D Fay, A Moyles (1-0); N Kelly (0-2), G Geraghty, P Byrne; D Regan (0-3, 1f), T Giles (1-2, 1f), J Sheridan (0-1).

Subs: O Murphy (1-2) for Geraghty 31, N McKeigue for McGabhann 44 (yellow), M Burke for Byrne 48 (yellow), M Ward (0-1) for B O'Reilly 56, B Farrell (0-2) for Regan 64, C Brennan for Crimmins (yellow).

Referee: A Mangan (Kerry).

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