Tyrone minor suffer harsh lesson on the cruelty of sport
All-Ireland Minor Football Championship final: Tyrone 1-11 Meath 1-12
ONE of the toughest lessons any 17-year-old footballer can learn is how cruel sport actually is.
There's no more exposed place to learn such a thing as All-Ireland final day in Croke Park.
That goes for the whole Tyrone team, not any individual. It was Conor Owens who sliced the final free wide of the left-hand post, having done superbly to earn it, but there were any number of missed chances in the second half.
Tyrone kicked 11 wides and dropped three shots in the ‘keeper's hands. They won their way to the final as a team, and they lost as a team on Saturday afternoon.
A valiant side that you could say didn't deserve to lose, but then neither did Meath.
Both teams brought superb, breathless entertainment to a crowd that swelled until a cacophonous finish in which the Leinster champions earned a fourth All-Ireland crown, a first since 1992.
It was fitting from their perspective that Conor Ennis was the man to drive them to their winner, and that Shaun Leonard was the man with the cool head to kick it in front of the Hill.
They were Meath's two best players, in the order listed above.
Ennis was outstanding all day, full of energy and pace and no little poise.
Leonard's bobbing locks made him easily distinguishable but it was more the way he jinked and weaved at the Tyrone defence all afternoon.
There was precious little to separate the sides, as expected. They both had spells of dominance at midfield, both had moments from their key attacking players, but largely it was a day of great defending.
Ennis, Liam Kelly, Sean O'Hare, Tomás Corbett and John O'Regan all had big moments in the Meath defence. Same for Callan Kelly, Ronan Fox, Shea O'Hare for Tyrone.
This was one-to-one combat and it was enthralling.
Tyrone played the first half with pretty much two forwards, withdrawing everybody else deeper, and Meath let them do it. Cathal Ó Bric trusted his defence man-to-man and it paid off.
Ronan Cassidy on the 45' against Liam Kelly, and inside Cormac Devlin took on Tomás Corbett.
It was the supply of ball that let Tyrone down, just a yard off a lot of the time. There was space outside either man the whole time but the ball kept turning inwards to the defender's side.
Devlin completely lost Corbett after seven minutes to get in behind, round goalkeeper Oisin McDermott and fire Tyrone into a 1-2 to 0-2 lead.
Five minutes later, the Leinster men responded with a brilliant goal of their own. Liam Kelly picked off Tyrone's kickout and fed Oisin Ó Murchú, who took advantage of a slip to head for goal and fire into the top corner.
It was 1-4 apiece at the water break and just a point separated them at half-time, 1-7 to 1-6. Tyrone ended the half with a goal chance but Gavin Potter's effort was brilliantly smothered by John O'Regan, who first cut off the pass through his positioning and then dived on the ball to block it.
The third quarter was where Meath won it. They kept the cooler heads and as they pushed into a three-point lead by the second water break, Tyrone looked for the first time like the 16-year-olds they are.
A magnificent save from Niall Robinson to deny Christian Finlay kept his side in the game, which Oisin Ó Murchu lacked the composure he'd shown earlier when he weakly prodded a good chance straight at the Tyrone ‘keeper.
The Ulster champions, seeking to keep the crown in the province after Derry won the 2020 version, struggled initially to cope without Ronan Donnelly around midfield after he went off injured.
They had to reshuffle things and it meant Conor Owens going in at full-forward, where he had a big impact on the game.
Jack Martin came into the middle and while it took him ten minutes to settle too, he was arguably Tyrone's best player in the final 20 minutes.
Ó Murchú, a fine 45 from goalkeeper McDermott and Hughie Corcoran profiting off Conor Ennis's good work pushed Meath 1-11 to 1-8 ahead and it seemed a long way back.
But Tyrone got themselves composed and as they squeezed up, Meath's kickout completely broke down.
Tyrone created 13 chances in the final quarter but took only three, with teenage rashness creeping in as the crowd and the atmosphere grew behind them.
They kept on creating though and when Conor Owens pointed a 62nd minute free, extra-time seemed almost inevitable.
Shaun Leonard had other ideas, settling himself to slot over a tricky winner from the wrong side for a right-footer. Tyrone would get one more chance but with an unsettling noise building in the form of unnecessary whistling and jeering at 17-year-olds, Owens sliced his kick wide.
It's a hard way to learn.
Tyrone: N Robinson; M Mallon, M Rafferty, C Kelly; S O'Hare, H Cunningham (0-1 free), R Fox; R Donnelly, R McHugh (0-2); R Strain, E McElholm (0-2), G Potter, P McCann; R Cassidy (0-3, 0-2 frees); C Devlin (1-1)
Subs: C Owens (0-2 frees) for Potter (HT), J Martin for Donnelly (31), N Grimes for McCann (46), R Molloy for Cunningham (57)
Blood subs: C Owens for Devlin (17-18), B Hampsey for McHugh (57-58)
Meath: O McDermott (0-2 45s); T Corbett; L Kelly; J O'Regan, S O'Hare, C Ennis, K Smyth; P Wilson, J Kinlough (0-1); C McWeeney, S Emmanuel (0-1), C Finlay, S Leonard (0-2); H Corcoran (0-3, 0-1 free), O Ó Murchú (1-2)
Subs: A Moore for McWeeney (53), J Foley for Corcoran (58), B O'Halloran for Kelly (61)
Referee: D O'Mahoney (Tipperary)