Meath hold off Armagh fightback to snatch vital Division Two win
Allianz National Football League Division Two: Meath 2-13 Armagh 0-13
AT one stage during the second half, it looked as though there would be no stopping the Armagh charge. Trailing by nine at the break, they had all but obliterated that deficit after a breathtaking 20 odd minutes, closing the gap to one.
Where the Orchardmen could barely escape their own 45 during the first half, battered and bruised against a stiff breeze, so the boot was on the other foot as Meath ran up blind alleys and coughed up possession with increasing regularity.
A week after leaving Ballybofey empty-handed, despite putting in a performance that merited a share of the spoils at the very least, Andy McEntee must have feared he was watching history repeat itself.
Lessons, though, had clearly been learned.
With Armagh breathing down their necks, the Royals regrouped and slowed the game down to a walking pace at times, playing with patience and precision while simultaneously sucking the energy from Orchard legs.
When Eoin Lynch came off the bench, he slotted in at centre-back, allowing the excellent Donal Keogan to burst free from the shackles and probe deep into enemy territory, drawing frees and forcing errors. It was a crucial switch at a crucial time.
From the point when Armagh made it 1-10 to 0-12 14 minutes out, Meath picked off the next three points before substitute Ethan Devine’s scrappy 70th minute goal left McEntee’s men sitting pretty at the top of Division Two.
"We talked about this during the week; you win a game, you're on top, lose a game and we probably would have been close to joint-bottom,” said the Meath boss, whose side face struggling Cork next.
“Not a whole lot has changed for any of the teams at the top - you win the rest of your games you qualify for Division One. That's been our stated goal from the word go, no different from anyone less.”
After the frustration of back-to-back draws as a result of spurned leads against Kildare and Clare, Kieran McGeeney was relatively upbeat, despite leaving Navan with nothing.
The strength of the breeze seemingly pre-determined that this would be a game of two halves, and the Mullaghbawn man was delighted with how his side battled back in the second half, inspired by a barnstorming second half performance from Crossmaglen’s Rian O’Neill.
Meath’s extra bit of know-how, allied to some rash decisions from his own players, proved the difference in the end though.
“When it we had it back to two points we had six attacks in a row and were probably just a wee bit lethargic because probably the boys thought we were back in it,” said McGeeney, who was without the suspended Jamie Clarke.
“Against a team of the quality of Meath, that’s going to come back to bite you, and then you add in the first half where we just made a lot of silly errors.
“There was a good few positives in it as well. We played some lovely football for 20 minutes when we had the breeze, but there was just five or six small things that can come back to haunt you at this level that you would’ve got away with before.
“It was just small mistakes but I think that’s where maturity comes in. There was a lot of young players out there, really good young fellas, but that hard edge you need down in Navan or in Croke Park takes years to get.
“Sometimes you just don’t do what’s right in front of your face; sometimes you have to take a pause, and maybe we’re not good at that pause.”
The first half was tough viewing for the travelling Armagh support. It was 15 minutes before the Orchardmen registered on the scoreboard, Stephen Sheridan’s point reducing the gap to three after Meath had seized the initiative.
Pushing up high and hard, Armagh at times seemed powerless to stop them. Even with 14 men behind the ball, the Royals were engineering space well, while any attempt at an Orchard raid was cannily shut down.
A Mickey Newman penalty, for a foul on Thomas O’Reilly, extended the lead and with James McEntee, Cillian O’Sullivan and Darragh Campion buzzing around inside the Armagh 45, it was entirely one-way traffic.
They kept chipping away to lead 1-9 to 0-3 at half-time, a Ben Brennan free sending Meath into the changing rooms with a huge roar from the hardy home support inside Pairc Tailteann.
It looked a mountain too steep for Armagh to climb, and so it would prove when all was said and done - but they gave it a hell of a go.
Stefan Campbell had the beating of Conor McGill all day long and it was the Lurgan man who started the comeback a minute in.
Meath managed just one more score before the 61st minute, with the growing influence of Greg McCabe, the industry of Ryan McShane and Jemar Hall, the power and pace of Campbell and O’Neill and the class of Grugan helping Armagh eat away into that huge lead.
And when Campbell burst down the left and fisted over to leave just a point in it with 56 minutes gone, the Orchardmen had the wind at their backs in more ways than one. The game was theirs for the taking; or, at least, it should have been.
Instead, that score turned out to be little more than a last hurrah before the Royals pulled the shutters down, leaving Armagh too close to the bottom of Division Two for comfort.
Tipperary, shock conquerors of Donegal yesterday, are up next at the Athletic Grounds. Surely nothing but a first win of the campaign will do.
Meath: A Colgan; S Lavin, C McGill, R Ryan; J McEntee (0-1), D Keogan, N Kane; B Menton, S McEntee (0-1); C O’Sullivan (0-1), B Brennan (0-1, free), D Campion (0-2); B McMahon, M Newman (1-5, 1-0 pen, 0-5 frees), T O’Reilly (0-2)
Subs: G Reilly for Brennan (53), E Lynch for Kane (53), E Devine (1-0) for McMahon (63), M Burke for O’Sullivan (67)
Yellow cards: D Keogan (41), J McEntee (48)
Armagh: B Hughes; C Mackin, A McKay, R Kennedy; J Morgan, G McCabe, A Forker; S Sheridan (0-1), N Grimley; M Shields, J Hall, R McShane (0-2); R Grugan (0-4, 0-2 frees), R O’Neill (0-4, 0-3 frees), S Campbell (0-2)
Subs: J McElroy for Campbell (61), J Og Burns for Hall (63), P Hughes for Kennedy (67), A Nugent for McShane (67)
Yellow card: R O’Neill (10)
Referee: R Hickey (Clare)