Royals rebound but don’t yet dare to dream

The Tailteann Games were funeral games and festivities to entertain, associated with the semi-legendary history of Pre-Christian Ireland.

Páirc Tailteann on Saturday evening certainly had a subdued funereal atmosphere, but unfortunately, there was no football to truly entertain us. I suppose I should have known what was about to unfold in front of me if I had bothered to study my €3 programme.

The Round 2A qualifier booklet gave us information on all four games taking place on Saturday. The last time Meath won in the qualifiers was at home against Galway in 2011.

They lost all their subsequent qualifier games, but they were all away ties. Sligo’s record since 2011? Won four home games and lost six qualifiers on the road.

The last time Meath played Sligo in Páirc Tailteann was a league game in 2013. Sligo led at half-time, but Meath won by two points. Deja vu was about to unfold. As the two teams were waiting for the national anthem, the public address announced: “The game will be delayed by 10 minutes.”

I know now that was my cue to study the programme. I instead began daydreaming and I’m wondering now did I actually stay daydreaming for the next 75 minutes or was the game really that uninspiring?

Meath were determined to batten down the hatches in the first half — that’s when Kildare had put Meath to the sword in the Leinster championship. Sligo had the breeze and energy. They were trying to penetrate Paddy O’Rourke’s goal but Meath had 13 behind the ball. They had learnt their lessons.

They kept bouncing the Sligo lads away from the danger area. They were aggressive. Even before the throw-in, Brian Power, starting instead of Donnacha Tobin, got a yellow card for welcoming a Yeats County man to his patch.

The instructions were coming from the goalmouth. Paddy O’Rourke? No, the Meath warrior Gerry McEntee. Gerry positioned himself directly behind the Meath netminder. No supporters were behind either goal.

I’m wondering now was this a health and safety call or a tactical call? Either way it worked, sort of. Gerry called it, Paddy called it, the Meath defenders carried it out. Sligo still created 20 scoring opportunities in the first half, scoring 1-6, hitting three wides, dropping two shots short, and losing possession eight times to a packed Meath rearguard.

Paddy O’Rourke’s restarts were much improved. He found his target eight of 11 times in the first half. In the second half he had a 100% ratio, 8/8. Worryingly for Meath though, his long kick-outs weren’t very successful.

Why? Possibly a Kildare hangover — Meath lost so many against the Feeley/Moolick axis. Losing Ronan Jones after 15 minutes, due to injury, was probably the main reason. Jones looked energetic and hungry for the ball. He caught one of the only three marks all evening, played a one-two and kicked an inspiring score into the breeze.

Bryan Menton, who worked like a Trojan horse against Kildare, was almost invisible on Saturday night. I don’t think Meath should be afraid to boom their kickouts out a little longer the next day. Menton and Jones can certainly fetch and they have three very lively half-backs who are always willing to support and drive forward.

Meath were very patient in the first half. They shot eight times and scored six times. However, they lost possession 11 times in the scoring zone.

Why? A couple of reasons. They were nervous and afraid of wild shooting, more commonly called bad shot selection in today’s world. They tried too hard to find the perfect pass when a simple side step and burst of speed would have propelled them into a scoring position. They were lateral in their play.

You can argue this is patient play, which obviously it is when you retain possession for long periods. But Meath didn’t create a single goal chance in 75 minutes of play. If they did I was certainly daydreaming.

Sligo had extra men at times but not 13 behind the ball. Meath should be very capable of creating and scoring goals. Cillian O’Sullivan and Graham Reilly have the ability to open up defences, but only when they’re direct and play more one-touch, give-and-go style football.

In the second half, with the breeze at their backs and the backdoor closing quickly, Meath upped the ante.

They had 25 decent raids into the heart of the Sligo defence. Eight scores, six wides, three dropped short, and eight dispossessions. They were still lucky to win this game and left it very late. Enter Mickey Newman. Calm ensured. Clinical freekicks.

I straightened up in the terrace when I saw Mickey coming on.

I coached him in NUI Maynooth a few years ago and he was instrumental in getting us to three Sigerson weekends.

He worried every Sigerson defence he played against and had Philly McMahon not quietened him in the Sigerson final, he might have a Sigerson medal today. I won’t divulge how Philly quietened Newman, you can figure that out yourselves.

In my opinion, he’s the most natural forward in Meath’s ranks. He glides around the scoring zone, can win his own primary possession, and is a torrid customer to mark because he is equally accurate off both feet.

He loves teasing defenders with his trickery and has goal on his mind always. He’s a natural free-taker. His achilles heel over the last few seasons has been niggly injuries and a perceived lack of workrate.

When introduced on Saturday, he sprinted 40m to help his defenders overturn the ball, Meath attacked and won a free. Newman scores. Meath win the next kickout, attack, win another free. Newman converts again. It has taken almost 66 minutes for Meath supporters to finally feel that their championship season won’t finish today.

Sligo will be disappointed that they’re not in the qualifier bowl. They had a win in the qualifiers coming into Navan.

They have quality forwards. Adrian Marren played effectively as a playmaker in the half-forward line. Unfortunately for Sligo, they seemed to have too many playmakers and not enough players willing to break the line and get into good shooting positions. They created 23 potential scoring positions in the second half but scored three points.

There was obviously some genuine reasoning for not starting David Kelly. I would have started him as he has the ability to win lots of frees and score goals. Sligo did create several goal chances and bundled one over the line courtesy of the advantage rule when the referee had signalled a penalty.

They almost salvaged a draw in the fourth minute of injury time, but maybe the Pre-Christian Gaels ensured we wouldn’t have to endure extra-time.

I know all that matters is the result. Meath suffered a crushing defeat against Kildare and essentially were bullied off the park.

That’s not really in Meath’s psyche to let this happen. But it did and they needed to show a response in Navan. Their home fans were yearning for some fast-flowing, direct football to warm them up. They didn’t get it. But the hangover is gone now. The Royals will hope they can rev things up a notch in the next round.


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