From the stand, cheers erupted from the home contingent much to bemusement of the Meath players who in response awkwardly began to celebrate.
The Tyrone fans, meanwhile, cut solemn figures aside from those who jeered referee Derek Fahy off the field. Word had come through from Portlaoise and Belfast their point wasn’t enough to get them back into Division 1.
It wasn’t until county chairman Barney Allen came running towards him with news from Newbridge that Sligo had been beaten that Meath boss Seamus McEnaney clenched his fist and savoured retention of their Division Two status.
“It’s certainly a relief. It’s been a horrendous National League campaign for us, horrendous for whatever reasons.
“I asked the lads before the game to fight for every crumb (today) and keep fighting until we’re back in the dressing-room and they fought for every crumb.
“One good game doesn’t make you a great team but a couple of bad ones doesn’t make you a bad team.
“It’s probably hard to put our finger on it. I suppose we could point to missing a couple of exceptional players for important league matches (Graham and Kevin Reilly).”
Everywhere on the pitch they had grafters, especially in and around midfield where they sucked up the breaking ball over and over again. If it wasn’t full-back Shane McAnarney making three crucial interceptions to deny Tyrone goal chances it was the unerring shot-taking of Graham Reilly in the second-half, kicking four glorious points.
Tyrone’s failure to return to the top-flight was largely down to their opening two defeats to Derry and Donegal.
But yesterday they did themselves no favours, refusing to take easy point chances instead of going for goals.
They did get one – Penrose palming home in the 49th minute – when Mark Donnelly had a shot parried by Brendan Murphy. It put them 1-11 to 0-9 ahead but Meath finished strongly and twice went ahead in the last five minutes through Reilly before Penrose snatched the draw.
“It was a strange game,” shrugged Mickey Harte. “We had our chances to win and we either missed or messed up the final pass when we were in very good positions. We needed a big win to make it, but of course we are disappointed. We wanted to have 10 points at the end of this league and give ourselves a chance of making the final. We’re still in this division for next year and that is disappointing.”
Leading 0-8 to 0-6 at half-time, Tyrone delayed their return to the field for several minutes after an opening half in which they were fortunate to be ahead.
Meath kicked eight wides by then, also landing three shots into Pascal McConnell’s hands, as they seemed almost awkward with the amount of possession they were winning around midfield.
Joe McMahon, excellent against Kildare last week, was finding Paddy O’Rourke a handful and the goalkeeper turned full-forward was instrumental in Meath getting back on level terms by the half-hour before Penrose and Colm Cavanagh put the visitors in front at the break. Meath struck seven wides in the second-half but were winning so much ball around the centre and getting their finishers it was only a matter of time before they started turning that dominance into points.
Reilly was one of 11 different scorers for Meath but he was their inspiration, kicking booming points to keep the hosts in touch with Tyrone all the way.
What was most heartening for Meath was the four times they replied to Tyrone’s scores with ones of their own from the resultant kick-outs.
Penrose’s goal didn’t knock them either. Two minutes later, Reilly punted an effort between the sticks and was followed by McAnarney whose shot went over after smacking the crossbar.
“I think Meath showed a great mental strength (today),” said McEnaney about the quick responses. “A bit of resilience. That’s something that I suppose a lot of people were accusing, but I can tell you they’re mentally strong.”
Scorers for Meath: G Reilly 0-4; P O’Rourke, C Ward (two frees), J Sheridan 0-2 each; S O’Rourke, B Meade, N Crawford, P Gilsenan, B Farrell (free), S McAnarney, B Menton 0-1 each Scorers for Tyrone: M Penrose (three frees) 1-6; A Cassidy 0-2; B McGuigan, C Cavanagh, S Cavanagh (free), M Donnelly, C Gormley, J McMahon 0-1 each.
Subs for Meath: P Gilsenan for Kenny (inj 44); K Reilly for S O’Rourke (47); M Ward for Meade (51); B Farrell for C Ward (53); A Moyles for Sheridan (72).
Subs for Tyrone: Sean O’Neill for Harte (49); B Dooher for C Cavanagh (54); P Harte for Mulligan (61).
Referee: Derek Fahy (Longford).