A plucky Carlow side snatched a Leinster quarter-final draw thanks to a dramatic injury-time goal from JJ Smith and even Meath boss Seamus McEnaney admitted he was ‘delighted’ with the result.
There was a time when drawing with Carlow would have constituted a crisis in the Royal County but these are changed times.
Perhaps the Meath players deserve to be cut some slack too for they are after all still in the Championship.
They will have the chance to redeem their reputations next Saturday evening when And, in turn, perhaps we should, as Carlow manager Luke Dempsey, suggested afterwards, give his battling Barrowsiders the respect they deserve.
They were down and out with 72 minutes on the clock, reduced to 13 men after the late dismissals of Paul Reid and Derek Hayden and trailing by three points.
That was despite enjoying a fair spell of dominance in the second-half thanks to their strong midfield. With six wides they had, it was surmised, blown their chance.
But, suddenly, with the game almost up and only seconds left, Meath defender Donal Keogan gifted possession to a Carlow player.
It resulted in Carlow carving out an opening that led to sub Keith Jackson firing at Meath goakeeper David Gallagher who spilled the shot just yards from his goal line.
Smith was the right man in the right place for brave Carlow, poking home the equalising goal, taking his tally to 1-5 for the day and ensuring the replay.
McEnaney was adamant that his team hadn’t taken Carlow for granted. “We knew exactly about Carlow,” he insisted. “They had played Cork and Dublin in challenge matches and went to Cork for a training camp. We knew they were a seriously well prepared team and that they would come with all guns blazing.”
But it seemed that Meath’s players didn’t fully buy into the theory because, after a good start, they took their foot off the gas, apparently feeling much of the work was already done.
Graham Reilly, starting in midfield again after his successful conversion against Wicklow, was sharp early on, while Brian Farrell and Cian Ward were cutting Carlow up.
When Ward seized on a mistake by Carlow defender Padraig Murphy and strode free for a wonderful 22nd minute solo goal the writing appeared to be on the wall for the Division 4 outfit. Meath led by 1-5 to 0-3 and a rout was even mooted.
But Meath haven’t handed any team a serious spanking in a long time and, for whatever reason, failed to build on their early dominance.
They leaked four points in a row to Brian Murphy and Smith, 0-2 each, and by half-time led by just 1-6 to 0-7.
The margin was down to just a single point in the 47th minute when Smith took his day’s takings to four points.
Meath had a real battle on their hands now but, crucially, couldn’t point to too many areas where they were dominating.
Farrell did impress and for the second game running showed the street smarts of an experienced corner-forward to keep Meath just about ahead with back to back scores.
Meath lost midfielder Conor Gillespie to a 54th minute red card and struggled generally in this sector where Brendan Murphy and Darragh Foley dominated.
But as they entered injury time leading 1-12 to 0-12 the final analysis appeared to be that Carlow simply hadn’t been good enough to take advantage of their opponents’ failings.
Smith had been a live wire but they’d still kicked six wides when the game was there for either side to finish off.
The feeling of a missed opportunity grew even stronger when Reid was controversially dismissed for an apparent 69th minute strike on Keogan, followed by Hayden’s petulant lunge at Joe Sheridan that also warranted red.
But just as Meath looked set to kick on and possibly even improve on their three point lead in the 73rd minute, they gifted possession to Carlow. It was hard to begrudge Carlow the goal that followed to keep their dream alive of a Leinster semi-final spot for the second successive year.
Meath scorers: C Ward 1-3 (2f); B Farrell 0-4; G Reilly 0-3; D Tobin & M Burke 0-1 each.
Subs.: J Queeney for Forde 45, M Collins for Gilsenan 51.
Carlow scorers: JJ Smith 1-5 (4f); Brian Murphy 0-3 (2f); Brendan Murphy, D Foley, P Reid and D St Ledger (1f) 0-1 each.
Subs.: D Hayden for St Ledger 37, B Lambe for Bolger 52, K Jackson for Foley 60, C Murphy for Brian Murphy 68.
Referee: B Cassidy (Derry).