By Mark Jones
DUBLIN — There was hardly any room to move in the packed stands of Croke Park last Sunday and sadly for this massively disappointing All-Ireland football semifinal, the claustrophobia extended to the pitch.
With a majority of the 30 players jostling desperately for position between the two 40-yard lines, this tense, dour struggle never ignited. With a couple of goals, a sending-off, and a typically resourceful Meath comeback, the ingredients were there for some wide-open pyrotechnics, but in the end the teams might have been better off slugging it out in a lift raft.
With so many bodies funneling into cramped spaces, this was negative football at its very worst. Few among the 60,000 crowd could recall such a grindingly attritional semifinal in the last 25 years.
All the blocking, scragging and continual congestion predictably created few clear-cut scoring chances, and much of the shooting by both sides was woeful. But on a day when doggedness, determination and battling qualities were at a premium, it was no great surprise that Meath rose to the top and deservedly booked their place in the decider against Cork.
Rocked by two first-half goals from Diarmuid Marsden and Kieran Hughes, Meath were three points in arrears at one stage. Their most potent attacker, Ollie Murphy, was carried off after 20 minutes with a knee injury, Armagh’s much-vaunted front line of Oisin McConville and Marsden looked threatening at times and the Ulster champions appeared to be on course for a first final appearance since 1977.
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But gradually, Meath began to get a hold on the game as the impressive John McDermott won some vital possession in the logjam that was centerfield. Only eight points could be mustered during the entire second half, but Meath accounted for seven of them as Armagh’s challenge faltered.
At the heart of Armagh’s demise was the dismissal of full back Ger Reid for a second bookable offense. Reid had been struggling to contain Graham Geraghty, and when he tripped Geraghty, referee Paddy Russell had little choice but to show him a red card.
It seemed a reasonable decision. However, Armagh joint-manager Brian Canavan had other ideas about the incident. "It appears strange to me that Ger was sent off for flimsy tackle, at the end of the day, when you look at the physical content of the game," he said. "There was talk that he should have had a free-out just before the tackle."
Certainly, Reid’s exit 15 minutes from time had a profound effect on the outcome. It gave Meath a big lift and within seconds, Trevor Giles had leveled the scores and the winners went on to kick four more points without reply in the closing stages.
With McDermott making his presence count throughout, Giles eventually emerged from the shadows to make several telling passes in the direction of Evan Kelly and Geraghty during the second half. In fact, so dominant were Meath after Reid’s dismissal that they could afford to squander three straightforward chances near the end and still have a cushion.
"We had too many scoring chances we didn’t take and there wouldn’t have been too many stars on the day," said Meath manager Sean Boylan, "but it was a great workmanlike performance by everyone."
Armagh were entitled to be bitterly disappointed with the outcome, given they had played themselves into a winning position at the interval. Ahead by 2-4 to 0-8, Boylan confessed his team was "lucky to be within a roar of them at that stage."
Kieran McGeeney’s perceptive ball behind the defense created the first goal for Marsden which he finished emphatically and then McConville linked with Hughes, who had charged through from the half-back line to drive home the second.
With Paddy McKeever on target with a couple of great points and with Meath having to bring Ray Magee on in place of the injured Murphy, Armagh were looking good. The only blot was the subdued performance of McConville, whose father, Patsy, had been taken seriously ill the day before the game.
"Oisin came out with a heavy heart," reflected Armagh captain Jarlath Burns, "and to be honest we all had it on our minds. Patsy McConville is a major part of Armagh football."
McConville therefore must be forgiven his six wides.
Meath had come to terms with Armagh’s forwards before Reid got his marching orders and yet again, they proved themselves to be the toughest side in Ireland to beat. It wasn’t pretty, there wasn’t much quality, but the end justified the means. With the biggest game of the season left, the Royal County are still holding court.
Maughan quits Mayo
Following his team’s All Ireland football semifinal loss to Cork, John Maughan has resigned as Mayo manager. Maughan’s decision brings an end to a four-year spell in which he guided the county to two All-Ireland finals and three Connacht titles.
Once they had knocked reigning champions Galway off their perch earlier in the summer, many believed that Mayo had the experience to go all the way.
"I did think we might do it this year," Maughan said. "But while I’ve no problem being beaten by Cork, I would have been happier if we had played up to our potential."
He is convinced, however, that 1996, when the county was defeated by Meath after a replay, was Mayo’s best opportunity of All-Ireland glory. "We had the element of surprise, we had a terrific self-belief and we blew a six-point lead on both days," he said.
As for his thoughts of continuing, Maughan had no doubts it was time to step down. "After a while you feel like you’re flogging a dead horse and in the end, we were never able to make the real breakthrough," he said.
In other GAA news, Dublin and Down drew 1-10 to 0-13 in the All-Ireland minor football semifinal. Kilkenny destroyed Antrim by 6-27 to 0-10 in the semifinal of the All Ireland hurling Under 21 championship. Cork football panelist Alan O’Regan is out of contention for the senior final against Meath after being injured in a car accident last weekend.