Tyrone will need their wits to unpick Meath's lock
All-Ireland SFC qualifying round one: Meath v Tyrone (today, Páirc Tailteann, 5pm, live on Sky Sports Arena)
THOUGH they’ve climbed this hill plenty of times in the past, never has the terrain looked so unwelcoming to Tyrone as it does right now.
All the moves to create a more acceptable timeframe for the football and hurling championships, all the nips here and tucks there, have left the path from here to an All-Ireland semi-final looking disrepaired.
No team was better at negotiating the old road than Tyrone. They remain the only county to have won an All-Ireland from this position in 2008, and their three returns to the last eight from this position (2008, 2013 and 2015) are more than any other county has managed.
And that’s not to mention the ten-game odyssey of 2005. So if anyone knows how to manage the demands of a potential run of seven games in nine weeks just to reach the last four, it’s Mickey Harte.
He will have to do it without a significant portion of his attacking arsenal. Mark Bradley and Lee Brennan are both sidelined for at least another few weeks, making Peter Harte’s late act of frustration against Monaghan all the more costly as he serves a one-match ban against Meath this afternoon.
All of that shines a light back on the lack of game time given to Darren McCurry, who quit the panel in March. He was the sixth top scorer in Ulster that’s currently playing, behind only Conor McManus, Michael Murphy, Sean Quigley, Mark Lynch and Jamie Clarke.
And yet he didn’t start any of their five championship games last year, acting as an impact sub, and after playing just 41 minutes across the league games against Kildare, Monaghan and Donegal, the Edendork man opted out.
He would have been a very useful asset in the current situation. And after Ronan O’Neill’s public displeasure at being taken off against Monaghan, it was unlikely that Harte would start him.
That’s left him with a starting fifteen containing just one natural inside forward in Connor McAliskey, who took up the mantle against the Farney men and carried the Red Hand attack with a brilliant display.
Richie Donnelly is named to start his first championship game in just under two years, his appearances since the draw with Cavan in 2016 restricted to a handful of late minutes off the bench against Armagh last year.
Cathal McShane has dipped in and out of full-forward all year, and there’s a chance that they could use him as the focal point of their attack. Equally, there’s a chance he’ll play at midfield and Richie’s brother Mattie could be a surprise appointment on the edge of the square.
If Meath play as they did against Longford, then there’s a fair chance the inside forward line won’t be used that much anyway.
Even in recent years the Royals have been associated with a more traditional style, but they wouldn’t have looked far removed from the Ulster championship when they lost in Pearse Park.
At times they had everyone barring Donal Lenihan inside their own 45’ and while the result presents a convincing argument against its effectiveness, Longford were excellent from outside the perceived scoring zone.
Five of their seven first half points were kicked from long range. Longford kicked a handful of rash wides from distance as well, frustrated by not getting inside, and full-back Conor McGill had mastery over Longford dangerman Robbie Smyth all afternoon.
Longford got inside a lot more in the second half, with Meath looking more ragged. And as the underdogs’ lead grew, the more space naturally opened up.
But equally, up until Longford went five clear, the Royals carried the look of a side that believed they could drop down a gear at any time and pull away. They were poor and it was the last 15 minutes that showed how far within themselves they’d been playing for the rest of it.
The introductions of Joey and Eamon Wallace added a completely different edge to their attack and with the way they helped swing the momentum, had the game gone on another five or six minutes, Meath would have won it.
They also missed three great goal chances, two within a couple of minutes of each other at a crucial stage towards the end of the first half, and the third late on when they’d stormed back into it.
Simply, they left their charge too late and had to leave themselves exceptionally bare at the back for most of the last 20 minutes, enabling the Denis Connerton to steal their dance with Dublin.
Seeing that they’d been beaten by a Division Three side may convince observers that Meath will be chicken feed for Tyrone but that is not the case.
That deep-lying setup was far from flawless but it will cause problems for a Tyrone side that does not have a wealth of options when it comes to taking scores from long range.
Tiernan McCann, Mattie Donnelly and, at a push, Niall Sludden would be the only three you’d expect to line up a shot from beyond 40 yards.
If their running game hits the notes they are capable of, then they will stretch the Meath defence sufficiently. But, as Monaghan showed last weekend, it’s a gameplan that falls down when a team isn’t tuned in. Isolated runners and poor decision making will give Meath confidence and if that starts to happen, we could well have a game on our hands.
Graham Reilly hit three points from limited possession from a roving full-forward berth. Longford sacrificed Michael Quinn to pick him up, and it seems likely that Tyrone will stick Padraig Hampsey on Reilly.
James McEntee (whose cousin Seamus is suspended) and Donal Keogan, particularly the latter, are threats from half-back but Meath’s issue in attack is that they tend not to bother with the wings all that much. So much of their play goes up the middle and Tyrone, if Colm Cavanagh is fully fit, will swallow that up.
If Meath sit tight and do it effectively, they can frustrate the visitors every bit as much. But even though it’s unlikely to be all that comfortable, Tyrone will win.
Tyrone: N Morgan; P Hampsey, R McNamee, HP McGeary; T McCann, F Burns, M McKernan; C Cavanagh, P McNulty; M Donnelly, N Sludden, C Meyler; C McShane, R Donnelly, C McAliskey
Subs: M O’Neill, R Brennan, M Cassidy, H Loughran, C McCann, D McClure, A McCrory, K McGeary, R McNabb, R O’Neill, R Sludden
Meath: A Colgan; S Lavin, C McGill, S Curran; J McEntee, D Keogan, S Gallagher; B Menton, A Flanagan; C O’Sullivan, B Brennan, M Burke; B McMahon, G Reilly, D Lenihan