They eventually slumped to their second heavy defeat in three games and talk of Division 4 football spread.
That evening at Páirc Tailteann, worried fans wouldn’t have bet much on the prospect of returning yesterday to see the side earn promotion to Division 2 in such promising circumstances.
And they probably would have turned away in disgust if it was suggested that new boss Mick O’Dowd would be talking about the vast potential of his new-look team.
But that’s how it panned out for the Royal County, who took the circuitous route to fulfilling their favourites’ tag for promotion. A 1-5 blast from Mickey Newman was particularly positive as the young Kilmainhamwood attacker emerged as a much needed leader.
As a sign of the changing teams, there were only impact sub roles for Brian Farrell — their best player last year — and Joe Sheridan, an Interprovincial player. As much as Newman was complimented by the good work of Paddy O’Rourke, the Reillys and Stephen Bray, Meath also got some good luck.
The game swung in the third quarter when Fermanagh made two major errors. Leading by a point, Peter Canavan’s side wasted a 43rd minute penalty through Tomás Corrigan while six minutes later, wing-back Declan McCusker lost the plot and was shown a straight red card.
Though Fermanagh battled gamely initially, Meath’s extra numbers eventually counted and the hosts outscored them by five points in the last half hour. For O’Dowd, the impressive finish from a new-look side including Caolan Young, David Larkin, Davy Dalton and Eamonn Wallace only confirmed his suspicions about the team’s ability.
“We’re only scratching the surface of what we can achieve and certainly of what our ambitions are,” said O’Dowd.
“I’d have no limits on what’s inside them. We’re only beginning our work now with them. Four months is not that long with a group of players when you’re trying to put in a solid, sustainable base to really put Meath back in a good place for the long-term. That’s what we’re doing. It’s going to take time but we’re committed to it.”
Meath are through to the Division 3 final and will play Monaghan, who also beat them heavily in the opening round.
“The final was really today for us,” continued O’Dowd. “The next two weeks we’ll let the players back to their clubs. But a final at Croke Park will be good for some of these lads to get experience in advance of the Championship.”
Fermanagh will kick themselves for not making more of a good first-half. The sides went in deadlocked at 1-5 to 0-8. Newman’s 28th minute goal was crucial for Meath when he converted a penalty after Marty McGrath, trying to make up for an earlier error, brought down Peadar Byrne.
Ryan Jones and McGrath were dominant in midfield for Fermanagh but Shane McCabe and Tommy McElroy missed goal chances.
The Ulster men missed two more after the restart, McCabe again fluffing his lines along with that Corrigan penalty miss. Despite that, they still led 0-11 to 1-7 with 20 minutes to go. It appeared to be anyone’s game but the introduction of Meath’s Paddy Gilsenan was vital.
His 60th minute goal after being picked out by Newman put Meath four clear.
Still, a four point ultimate winning margin flattered them slightly as they kicked two injury time points through Newman and Gilsenan.
Scorers for Meath: M Newman 1-5 (1-0 pen, 0-4f), P Gilsenan 1-1, S Bray 0-3, G Reilly 0-2, E Wallace 0-1.
Scorers for Fermanagh: T Corrigan 0-8 (0-6f), R Jones, T McElroy 0-2, M McGrath, P Ward (0-1f) 0-1.
MEATH: P O’Rourke; C Young, B Menton, D Keogan; C Lenehan, K Reilly, D Dalton; B Meade, C Gillespie; D Larkin, G Reilly, P Byrne; E Wallace, S Bray, M Newman.
Subs: P Gilsenan for Larkin 49, S Curran for Young 53, B Farrell for Wallace 56, J Sheridan for Byrne 61.
FERMANAGH: C Snow; B Cox, A McGuinness, J Woods; D McCusker, M O’Brien, R McCluskey; S Lyons, M McGrath; T McElroy, S McCabe, R Jones; P Ward, T Corrigan, D Kelly.
Subs: B Owens for McGrath 59, C Quigley for Kelly 59, D Kille for Ward 63, D Keenan for McCluskey 66.
Referee: P O’Sullivan (Kerry).