Meath 0-16 Wicklow 0-11
Meath were made to dig deep by Wicklow but had to wherewithal to do so, carving out a deserved five-point Leinster SFC first-round victory at sun-kissed Dr Cullen Park.
The pressure was all on the Royals and in particular on their manager Seamus ‘Banty’ McEnaney, after the Monaghan man had survived a heave from his own county board following relegation to Division 3 of the league.
Injuries to the likes of Stephen Bray and Paddy Gilsenan didn’t help matters, and when his captain, Seamus Kenny had to be helped off with what looked like a serious knee injury after just eight minutes, McEnaney must have wondered if the gods were against him.
Graham Reilly thundered into proceedings at midfield before he too had to depart late on. With Joe Sheridan a major nuisance in the first half, and Kevin Reilly nullifying the Seanie Furlong threat, Meath were able to turn around an early five-point deficit to set up a Leinster quarter-final against Carlow in a fortnight’s time in Tullamore.
One expected Meath to come out with all guns blazing but instead, it was Wicklow who made the early impact.
Harry Murphy’s crew shot the opening five points, coming from a combination of some inspired play and a couple of errors from a clearly nervous Meath.
It started off with an inspirational score from John McGrath, who was battling leukaemia this time 12 months ago.
The Baltinglass marksman appeared to be fouled when he received possession in the opening seconds but showed good strength and composure to sell a dummy to Donncha Tobin before firing over with the outside of his right boot.
McGrath clipped one over soon afterwards, after receiving a lay-off from Furlong and when Tony Hannon pointed a couple of frees by the eighth minute, the margin was four.
James Stafford was the dominating force in the middle at this juncture but when Meath did win possession – and they did so to a greater degree as the half wore on – it was very clear that they would be seeking out Joe Sheridan at every opportunity.
The full-forward should have goaled in the 11th minute, when the ball landed in his arms after Graham Reilly’s effort for a point came back off the upright. His shot was saved by Wicklow goalkeeper, John Flynn however, with the ball rebounding to safety off the butt of the post.
Kevin Reilly kicked a sideline straight to Stephen Byrne and the Wicklow defender lofted it straight over the bar to stretch and it was looking bad for the Royals.
The effective Brian Farrell settled his side’s nerves when running onto a Sheridan flick to score, and Sheridan himself pointed soon afterwards.
Back came Wicklow with points from a Hannon 45 and a Furlong free but Mark Collins responded with an excellent finish at the other end before Farrell again benefited from two Sheridan assists to make it 0-7 to 0-5.
McGrath took his third point after receiving a good kick-pass from Darren Hayden but Alan Forde and Graham Reilly, who had started to get some good possession around the middle, left it at 0-8 to 0-7 at the interval.
Meath had a fairly strong wind at their backs in the second half but it wasn’t used to continue bombarding Sheridan, as instead, Graham Reilly took the game by the scruff of the neck.
He won the throw-in to point within ten seconds of the resumption and by the time he registered his fourth point of the half with just 15 minutes elapsed, Meath were three clear.
Wicklow had lost their own captain, Leighton Glynn by that juncture, stretchered off with a leg injury, and his influence was sorely missed.
Not that the Garden County didn’t have chances and David Gallagher had to make a brilliant save from Conor McGraynor, while Peadar Burke also had a shot deflected the wrong side of the posts.
When James Stafford received his marching orders for a second yellow-card offence, there s no way back for Wicklow however and with eight minutes of injury time, Meath pushed on, late points from Sheridan and Jamie Queeney sealing the verdict.
Meath: G Reilly 0-5; B Farrell 0-4; J Sheridan, J Queeney 0-2 each; A Forde, M Collins, C Ward(f) 0-1 each
Wicklow: T Hannon 0-6(4fs, 2 45s); J McGrath 0-3; S Byrne, R Finn 0-1 each
Meath: D Gallagher; D Tobin, K Reilly, S McAnarney; M Burke, B Menton, S Kenny; C Gillespie, G Reilly; A Forde, M Collins, B Meade; B Farrell, J Sheridan, C Ward. Subs: D Keoghan for Kenny inj (9); J Queeney for Collins (55); P Byrne for G Reilly inj (65); B Sheridan for Ward (70); D Carroll for Forde (70+3)
Wicklow: J Flynn; C Hyland, A McLoughlin, A Byrne; S Byrne, S Kelly, D Healy; J Stafford, R Finn; D Hayeden, D O’Sullivan, L Glynn; J McGrath, S Furlong, T Hannon. Subs: P Burke for O’Sullivan (ht); P Earls for Glynn inj (42); N Gaffney for Byrne (47); C McGraynor for McGrath (55); J Bolger for Byrne (65)
Referee: P Hughes (Armagh)