Meath hearts broken by cool Tyrone heads
All-Ireland SFC qualifiers round one: Meath 0-19 Tyrone 2-14 (AET)
THERE are tears clinging to the top of his eyelids, fighting to get out as he strains to keep them in. The voice breaks. He just has to stop talking.
Andy McEntee sits atop a bench in the bowels of Páirc Tailteann and all around is deathly quiet, worlds away from how it rocked 45 minutes or so earlier.
Devastated is not the word. He considers his own future, the future for his players, their families, and the game itself.
That’s the level of investment and you could see it in Meath’s performance. The structure and shape was the same as it had been in their defeat by Longford, but the energy was trebled.
The crowd fed off it from very early on and with 30 seconds to go in normal time, it seemed Navan town might crash down with the noise that was about to emanate on Paddy Neilan’s final whistle.
But Kieran McGeary, who had a massive impact when he came on, kept his cool and fed Cathal McShane, who slipped into a yard of space and then steadied himself. You knew before it left his boot that there were to be another 20 minutes.
At that stage, the home support voiced their displeasure towards the Roscommon official. He had given a 13-metre free instead of what looked like a penalty for the superb Cillian O’Sullivan, and Tyrone generally got their frees that bit easier throughout proceedings.
But equally, the Red Hands fell victim at times too, notably when the game was level at 1-10 to 0-13. Connor McAliskey intercepted Graham Reilly’s pass but as he popped Frank Burns into an ocean of space in front of the Meath goal, they found no advantage was allowed.
Meath could forgive the penalty call in a way because they got another 20 minutes at it, but when James McEntee seemed to have been clearly pushed in the back by Kieran McGeary in the game’s final play, the referee waved away appeals for what would have been a very kickable equalising free.
It took a ring of Gardai to protect him from angry Meath players and officials at the very final whistle, and he left to a rainstorm of programmes being flung in his direction, the last act of the frustrated GAA fan.
It was almost half an hour before Andy McAntee emerged from the changing room and he went alright for a couple of minutes, holding it together while visibly seething.
“These fellas put their lives on hold and the whole thing gets decided by a couple of very poor decisions. That’s the hard bit.
“Those fellas, they make a mistake, they pay the price out there. They miss a free, they drop a ball, they pay the price. What’s the price for what went on out there today?”
For every heartbreak, there’s a heartbreaker. Tyrone delivered a series of damaging early blows, opening a 1-3 to 0-2 lead after seven minutes, with Conor McAliskey hitting his side’s entire tally in that spell as he carried on his good form, while Richie Donnelly was an excellent foil for him inside.
But by the game’s quarter-mark, it was clear that this was a Meath side of some conviction. James McEntee carried superbly all day, Cillian O’Sullivan was a nightmare for Tyrone to pick up, and their monstrous midfield and energetic break-winners were too many, particularly on their own kickouts.
The home side hit four on the bounce to level, O’Sullivan kicking the best of them off a McEntee pass to make it 0-6 to 1-3.
Tyrone came back again, McAliskey with two more (one free) and Michael McKernan with a rare effort from outside the Meath defensive shell re-establishing a lead that Meath only managed to put one more dent in before half-time, leaving it 0-7 to 1-6.
The Ulster side’s running game had been effective in opening up gaps in the first half and the disappointment they’ll have had is that they could have had three goals. McAliskey hit the bar and Padraig McNulty had an effort well stopped by Andrew Colgan.
“If we had lost that game, we would have been very sore about it because it wasn’t that we weren’t creating chances. We were creating chances, and very good chances, but we didn’t take them,” said Mickey Harte afterwards.
“And when you do that, you know invariably that you pay for it. And we almost paid a huge price today for it.”
Meath were level within five minutes of the restart, with Ben Brennan coming into the game in a big way, and from there it was anyone’s. Frank Burns kept Tyrone ticking with two great scores but his second was an equaliser as Tyrone now found themselves on the chase without 15 minutes to go.
It seemed like Meath had all the momentum but, as much as they have cause for complaint with the referee, their own systems broke down too. They started to struggle on their own kickout and turn ball over where they hadn’t previously, handing Tyrone opportunities on the break.
There was the penalty shout for O’Sullivan that certainly looked inside, but when Tiernan McCann got sent off for an off-the-ball incident with four minutes left, Tyrone were scratching at the rockface to stay alive.
McAliskey levelled with a simple – and soft – free, but Brennan kicked Meath back ahead with an equally handy one from the ref. It seemed gone, Brennan taking a second booking to stop Tyrone but McGeary found a gap and McShane found another off that space, and the Leckpatrick man kept his head to secure two extra periods.
A sumptuous, redemptive dummy from Ronan O’Neill created a goal for Harry Loughran, palming home at the far post as Tyrone scored 1-3 to Meath’s 0-2 in the opening half to seemingly take complete command.
The belief had been sucked out of the Meath supporters, some of whom headed for home, but Tyrone somehow let themselves be reeled in again. Three unanswered points left it down to one last ball, and Meath won it on the kickout.
But as James McEntee headed for goal, 40 yards out on the right hand side, he was tumbled over by McGeary. No free. Ball stolen. Final whistle.
Sport’s as magnificent as it is cruel. This was both in equal measure. And Tyrone will perhaps be glad of the measure of such a game to keep them at the speed they’ll need to hit if they’re still going in mid-July.
Meath: A Colgan; S Lavin, C McGill, S Curran; J McEntee (0-2), D Keogan (0-1), S Gallagher; B Menton, A Flanagan; C O’Sullivan (0-2), B Brennan (0-6, 3f), M Burke (0-1); J Wallace (0-1), G Reilly, D Lenihan (0-3f)
Subs: T O’Reilly for Lenihan (54), E Wallace for Burke (56), B McMahon for J Wallace (57), C O’Brien (start of ET), S Glynn for Gallagher (74), D O’Neill for McGill (80), D Lenihan for Lavin (83)
Yellow cards: B Brennan (36, 70+4), D Lenihan (38), G Reilly (57), T O’Reilly (78), S Curran (83), G Reilly (85)
Black card: A Flanagan (89), no replacement
Red cards: B Brennan (70+4)
Tyrone: M O’Neill; P Hampsey, R McNamee, HP McGeary; T McCann, F Burns (0-2), M McKernan (0-1); C Cavanagh, P McNulty; M Donnelly, N Sludden (0-1), C Meyler; C McShane (0-2), R Donnelly, C McAliskey (1-8, 0-6f)
Subs: K McGeary for Meyler (48), R Brennan for HP McGeary (48), H Loughran (1-0) for R Donnelly (53), D McClure for McNulty (64), R McNabb for McNamee (68), R O’Neill (start of ET), C Meyler for McKernan (76), C McCann for McShane (85), A McCrory for Hampsey (90)
Yellow cards: C Cavanagh (52)
Red card: T McCann (66)
Referee: P Neilan (Roscommon)