And, considering manager Eamonn Barry was threatened with dismissal last month, it was all the more significant, with the Meath public’s enthusiastic support for him and his players validating his appointment.
Barry though sounded a note of warning: “Nobody is going to get carried away by this.’’
In front of what team captain Nigel Crawford referred to as the biggest crowd to support them at home for a long time, Meath’s impressive first-half display laid the foundations for victory. Offaly manager Kevin Kilmurray was reassured by his team’s attempted recovery, saying: “They worked their socks off. It would be very hard to criticise them.’’ At the same time, he conceded they played inconsistently.
“Last Sunday we were up for it against Laois. We geared ourselves a little bit more for tougher opposition. We did not ever think that Meath were going to be easy, but we did expect to be there or thereabouts,’’ he said.
In reality, Offaly were not really competitive for most of the first half, with Meath kicking over three early points and adding a well-worked goal through Joe Sheridan in the eighth minute. Midway through the half the Royals enjoyed a lead of nine points and, while they weren’t so dominant for the 10 minutes before the break, they never lost control.
The most impressive feature of their game was direct play, which manifested itself in quick, reliable passing and accurate kicking from distance. It was facilitated by tigerish defending and commanding play from midfielders Nigel Crawford and Barry Lynch.
Graham Geraghty, played his part at full-forward, Sheridan looked very lively in the centre and in defence Paddy Nugent and Niall McLoughlin on the right flank stood out.
Offaly, in contrast, struggled. Their problems ranged from poor reading of the game in defence, to a lack of competitiveness in the centre and an attack which lacked penetration. Ciaran McManus, their most established player, contributed little at centre-forward and took time to settle at midfield but was to be much more involved later on. However, he was central to their only goal chance of the half when he hit a powerful ground shot against the crossbar.
Likewise, Meath were denied by the woodwork when a punched effort from Sheridan came back off the butt of the upright. At half-time, they led 1-10 to 0-4.
Offaly’s second-half rally took time to gain momentum, aided by more aggressive defending, a significant improvement at midfield - through McManus and team captain Alan McNamee - and more imaginative forward play. Here, ex-minor Sean Ryan was the main contributor. Substitute Niall McNamee also made a notable impact, while the talented Colm Quinn was rested (along with midfielder Neville Coughlan and centre-back Scott Brady) ahead of the NFL opener against Cork on Sunday. However, full-back Shane Sullivan, who limped off with an ankle injury after only eight minutes, will be out of action for a month.
Assisted by Thomas Deehan’s free-kicking, Offaly made steady progress and were four points behind (1-12 to 0-11) with 12 minutes remaining. That was the nearest they got, as the home side lifted their challenge and substitute Ger Robinson scored a terrific goal in the 65th minute. A third followed, fortuitously in injury time, when Sheridan was in position to fire to the net after the ball came back off the crossbar.
It was a very encouraging start to the year for Barry, new County Board Chairman Brendan Dempsey - whose brother Noel and fellow Government Minister Brian Cowan were amongst an attendance estimated at close to 15,000.
: Meath: J. Sheridan 2-0; P. Curran 0-4 (0-2 frees); G. Robinson 1-0; N. Crawford 0-3; T. Brosnan and R. Maguire 0-2 each; G. Geraghty, S. Kenny and B. Lynch 0-1 each. Offaly: T. Deehan 0-6 (0-5 frees); C. McManus 0-3 (0-2 frees); S. Ryan and N. McNamee 0-2 each; P. Keelaghan 0-1.
: R. Nolan; P. Nugent, T. O’Connor, C. King; N. McLoughlin, J. Donoghue, S. Kenny; B. Lynch, N. Crawford (capt.); P. Curran, J. Sheridan, S. McAnarney; R. Maguire, G. Geraghty, M. Doran.
: R. Kearns for O’Connor (41st minute); T. Brosnan for Maguire (56th); G. Robinson for Doran (63rd); W. Reilly for Lynch (65th); J.L. Magee for McAnarney (67th).
: P. Kelly; K. Lynam, S. O’Sullivan, P. McConway; T. O’Connor, B. Mooney, N. Grennan; R. Connor, A. McNamee (capt.); J. Reynolds, C. McManus, L. Mooney; S. Ryan, P. Keelaghan, T. Deehan.
: S. Casey for O’Sullivan (injured, eighth minute); N. McNamee for L. Mooney (32nd); J. Rafferty for McConway (second half); P. Bracken for R. Connor (64th).
: P. Fox (Westmeath).