A smile flickered across Mickey Burke’s face last week when the Meath defender was asked if they were doing anything different for the visit of Sligo.
The question was set in the context of the 5-25 they’d conceded across two games against Kildare and Louth.
“Time will tell on that, I can’t be giving that away now,” said Burke, grinning.
Meath, as it turned out, didn’t quite reinvent the wheel, but funnelling more men back behind the ball than ever before was significant for a county that refused to embrace the blanket defence age.
Former boss Mick O’Dowd showed little interest in packing out his defence and, until Saturday, successor Andy McEntee displayed a similar leaning.
But needs must and, in the end, it was as much Meath’s miserly defence as the four late points in a row, scored by Mickey Newman and Sean Tobin, that saw them through.
“They set up completely different than how they did all year,” said Sligo manager Niall Carew. “I wasn’t surprised after their last two games, they shipped big scores and it’s just the way the game has gone. We’ve all seen even with Dublin last week, they had 14 and 15 players behind the ball at times.”
Depending on who Meath are drawn against this morning in Round 3A, we could see more of the same next weekend.
“We’re not doing anything hugely different than we’ve ever done except we’re trying to maybe do what we do a little bit better,” said Meath manager McEntee. “It’s something that we looked at. We conceded a big score against Louth, we conceded a big score against Kildare and everybody is obviously mindful of conceding too much.”
Sligo were held to 10 scores in total, just six of which came from play, while the visitors managed only five points from play in a game which stretched nearly 80 minutes. But this wasn’t vintage Meath either, far from it, and with 67 minutes on the clock, the teams remained deadlocked.
Newman’s second point and two injury-time scores from Tobin nudged Meath three clear though it was so nearly wiped out.
With three points still between the teams, and almost 76 minutes played, Sligo substitute David Kelly had a shot cleared off the line by James Toher and only took a point from the follow-up.
“I thought it was going in,” winced Carew afterwards. “Of all the players you want on the ball, it was him, but we just didn’t get the rub of the green. So we’re disappointed. As with any management team, what you want is for your team to compete at this level and to create enough chances to win the game. We probably created them but we didn’t convert them.”
Extra-time wouldn’t have flattered Sligo who were 1-6 to 0-6 up at half-time and led for a combined 37 minutes of the game, as well being on level terms on a number of occasions.
Burke, who picked up Stephen Coen from the throw-in, had another strong game as did Tobin, the late hero, substitutes Brian Conlon and Mickey Newman, and captain Graham Reilly. But Meath lacked a decisive cutting edge in attack, were too slow to find their key forwards, and fell over the winning line.
“I was most pleased that with 10 minutes to go, momentum was back with Sligo yet fellas showed a bit of character and heart and finished strongly,” said McEntee.
“The game seemed to swing to and fro. Even in the first-half we had a couple of good periods and good scores against the wind. Then there was a period in the second half for about 10 or 12 minutes where we looked in trouble.
“But we stuck at it. I don’t think Sligo scored for the last 20 minutes, bar the one right at the very end, so defensively I thought we looked a lot stronger than we have.”
The return of Newman, an All-Star nominee in 2013, was a boost. He nailed two pressure kicks from frees at a vital stage of the game, turning it in Meath’s favour.
McEntee said: “We had missed a couple of frees, a couple had dropped short, and for his first kick of a competitive football in over six months to be a tricky free, it wasn’t easy but he kept a cool head and stuck it over.”
D. Lenihan (3 frees), S. Tobin (1 ‘45) (0-3 each); M. Newman (2 frees), G. Reilly (0-2 each); C. O’Sullivan, R. Jones, J. McEntee, S. McEntee (0-1 each).
G. O’Kelly-Lynch (1-1); A. Marren (0-4, 3 frees, 1 ‘45); N Ewing, P. Hughes, N. Murphy, D. Kelly (0-1 each).
P. O’Rourke; D. Keogan, C. McGill, M. Burke; P. Harnan, B. Power, S. McEntee; B. Menton, R. Jones; J. McEntee, C. O’Sullivan, G. Reilly (c); R. O Coileain, S. Tobin, D. Lenihan.
J. Toher for Jones (15); B. Conlon for Power (h/t); T. O’Reilly for J. McEntee (57); M. Newman for Lenihan (61); D. Tobin for Harnan (65); E. Wallace for O’Sullivan (75).
A. Devaney; R. Donavan, C. Harrison, Keelan Cawley; G. O’Kelly-Lynch, B. Egan, N. Ewing (c); A. McIntyre, P. O’Connor; J. Kelly, M. Breheny, N. Murphy; S Coen, P. Hughes, A. Marren.
N. Gaughan for Harrison (47); Kyle Cawley for Kelly (48); K. McDonnell for Breheny (54); D. Kelly for Egan (58, black card); S. Gilmartin for McIntyre (67); C. Davey for O’Connor (72).
Noel Mooney (Cavan).