THE howls of protest will gush from the Wee county deep into the summer and beyond but any slim chance of Meath offering a rematch disappeared into the ether within half-an-hour of yesterday’s astonishing end game.
This wasn’t how Eamonn O’Brien or anyone else in Meath wanted to claim a first Leinster senior title in nine years but they’ll be damned if anyone thinks they should apologise for the manner in which they won it.
“I don’t know where that is coming from,” said O’Brien when it was put to him that his side’s late act of larceny merited a second chance for Louth.
“If that was the case then you would be offering replays to every team in the country.
“Do we go back and look at the decision against Nigel (Crawford) where Louth got a point? Say we were beaten by a point, would anyone be asking?
“Because of the time the thing happened it becomes a big talking point.”
O’Brien pleaded ignorance to the unorthodox manner in which Joe Sheridan had ‘breached’ the Louth goal-line in the 74th minute but the big man from Seneschalstown clearly did so illegally.
Seamus Kenny’s initial goalbound shot had been blocked brilliantly by Paddy Keenan when the ball eventually deflected off a defender and towards Sheridan who seemed to launch himself over the line before throwing the ball to the net.
The ground had hardly begun to empty before Meath’s act of escapology was drawing comparisons with Thierry Henry and Luis Suarez and, lest we forget, neither of those infamous incidents prompted a replay.
Neither will this, it would seem.
Laois memorably offered a rematch to Carlow after a Leinster championship quarter-final in 1995 after they won the game by the slimmest margin and on the back of a ‘point’ by Mick Turley that was clearly wide.
What happened yesterday was even more unfortunate, unquestionably, but it is not within the GAA’s remit to order rematches on the basis of a referee’s decision. That leaves the ball in Meath’s court but the will doesn’t appear to be there.
“I’m sure most players have been involved in controversial circumstances like that where there have been calls for a replay but I just don’t think it is possible,” said Meath captain Nigel Crawford.
“If you start that where do you end up?
“Can we go back and say the ball wasn’t on the ground when we touched it and they got a free?
“Back in ‘95 (in the All-Ireland final) that happened to Tyrone and the ball was clearly off the ground and they should have equalised and got a replay there.
“It is just very unfortunate that it should happen in such a high-profile game and to a team that hasn’t won in a long time.
It is just a very unfortunate situation.”
Not nearly as unfortunate as the incidents which followed it and, in particular, the sight of referee Martin Sludden being jostled and pelted with missiles by irate Louth fans as he left the pitch.
Rarely have emotions ran so high in Croke Park.
One female Louth fan was already in tears by the time Sludden called time but a minority decided to express themselves in more forceful terms by invading the playing pitch.
Similar scenes have been seen or heard in every county in the country at one point or another but the fact that this was happening in Croke Park itself served to make them even more disturbing.
In fairness, the Association has been consistent in warning of the dangers involved in spectators encroaching the pitch and yesterday’s scenes may even push the GAA down the road of perimeter fencing.
It was a horrible note on which to end what a gripping game and one which seemed destined to finish with a first Leinster title for Louth in 53 years after a stirring second-half performance.
Louth had entered the game as 4/1 outsiders but much of what we expected to unfold never came to pass and, when the dust settles, the underdogs will harbour regrets of their own making too.
Contrary to popular opinion, Louth’s defence did not crumble in the face of Meath’s stellar attack. Sure, they creaked at times but only Graham Reilly and Stephen Bray did any damage from play until Sheridan’s closing gambit.
Louth’s trump card was supposed to be their heralded midfield partnership of Paddy Keenan and Brian White but it was Meath who just about edged the possession stakes with 53% of the day’s kickouts.
Meath’s early dominance in that sector handed them the early initiative but they failed to make the most of it and Louth reached the half-hour mark level and it could have been better.
JP Rooney and Shane Lennon both rolled shots inches wide of Brendan Murphy’s posts in that spell and four points from Graham Reilly were paramount in handing Meath a three-point advantage at the interval.
The second period was all Louth, or so it seemed. The midfield battle swung emphatically their way during the third quarter and their momentum had Peter Fitzpatrick dancing and pumping his fists on the sideline.
Rooney benefited from Brian Meade’s error of judgement in jumping for the ball to score the game’s first goal after 63 minutes to hand Louth a three-points lead but signs of their eventual downfall were already accumulating.
Fifteen wides, nine of them in the second-half, were to cost them dear and Colm Judge walked to the line after receiving two yellow cards in the space of three minutes towards the end.
Both were justified but the second was coloured by the fact that Sludden failed to whistle for a clear foul on Ray Finnegan by Meath’s Seamus Kenny just moments before.
It was, unfortunately, a mere taster of the controversy to come.
Scorers for Meath: G Reilly (0-4); C Ward (0-4f); J Sheridan (1-0); S Bray (0-2); A Moyles (0-1); N Crawford (0-1).
Scorers for Louth: JP Rooney (1-1); B White (0-4, three frees); C Judge (0-2, one free); A McDowell (0-1); P Keenan (0-1); A Reid (0-1).
Subs for Meath: C McGuinness for Moyles (66); P Byrne for O’Rourke (69).
Subs for Louth: S Fitzpatrick for Greene (31); A Hoey for Fanning (53); P Smith for Lennon (58); D Byrne for Reid (62).
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