By Mark Jones
Meath 3-10, Offaly 0-7
Crushed last season in the Leinster football decider by a fitter, sharper and more direct Offaly, it was Meath’s turn for some sweet revenge in last Sunday’s first-round championship game at Croke Park.
Given that Offaly had gone from strength to strength in those intervening 12 months, capturing the National League title along the way, Meath’s victory was all the more stunning. On top in every department, they squeezed the life out of their opponents with a superb tactical performance.
While the massive 12-point margin flatters the winners – two of the goals came in the final five minutes – those late emphatic strikes by Stephen Dillon and captain Brendan Reilly were the direct product of Meath’s overall dominance.
Frustrated at every stage by Meath’s magnificent covering, Offaly were forced to throw caution to the wind in the closing minutes and clinically and efficiently, Meath made the most of the space that opened up at the back.
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If this richly deserved success was based on teamwork and simple football rather than on any flamboyance, Graham Geraghty still managed to grab the attention of the near 50,000 attendance with a marvellous individual display.
Suspended for last season’s clash between the two counties, Geraghty made up for his absence in a big way as time and time again he ran at the heart of the Offaly defense leaving a trail of would-be tacklers in his wake. The inspirational center forward had a hand in all three of Meath’s second-half goals and while Trevor Giles was also in impressive form, Geraghty stole the show.
Afterward, Offaly Manager Tommy Lyons summed up the game perfectly. “They never gave us a moment to settle, they tackled like demons and took their chances with a sense of hunger that was simply greater than ours.”
Almost every aspect of the contest was a contrast to the events of last year. Where Vinny Claffey, Roy Malone and Peter Brady had wreaked their skillful brand of attacking havoc, this time the Meath defense stood firm. An injury to Brady which confined him to a substitute’s role didn’t help matters, but such were the limpet like attentions of Mark O’Reilly, Darren Fay and Paddy Reynolds that even a fit Brady mightn’t have made much of a difference.
Offaly hardly had a single goal chance as Meath set about their task with real intent. It was 0-6 to 0-2 at the break and then Giles increased the margin to five soon after the restart as the winners threatened to charge out of reach. But to Offaly’s credit, they mounted a gutsy revival.
Colm Quinn, Malone and Quinn again all scored points in quick succession to cut the deficit to just two when Meath struck with the first and all-important goal. Geraghty tried for a point, but his shot took a deflection and debutant Ray Magee was in the right place to palm the ball into the net.
That was the beginning of the end for reigning champions as Tommy Dowd continued to trouble the Offaly rearguard, while John McDermott and Nigel Nestor outplayed their opponents at centerfield. Five minutes from full time, Dowd shook off two defenders, Geraghty scrambled the ball through to give Dillon a tap-in goal and then Reilly finished the job with goal No. 3.
Even if there’s a long way to in the championship, Meath’s stock has risen to a new high after this performance. It could be their summer.
Galway 1-13, Mayo 2-6
Poking among the embers of this vibrant Connacht football first-round game at Castlebar, one main question needed to be asked: Was this the demise of one team or the emergence of another? Mayo certainly gave up their provincial crown far too easily, but Galway’s young team probably took too long to drive their advantage home.
Despite Mayo’s off-color performance, it was only three points in the closing 5 minutes that sealed Galway’s victory in front of a packed attendance of nearly 34,000.
Still, that inability to kill off Mayo earlier in the game was Galway’s only failure on a day when they managed to wrest control of the local football scene. Prompted by the excellent Niall Finnegan, they gave the Mayo defense endless trouble as Padraig Joyce and Derek Savage also made important contributions.
They managed to deprive Mayo of clear attacking opportunities and had it not been for Kieran McDonald’s opportunism with two snappily taken goals, the champions for the last two seasons would have had a very lean time of it.
However, Galway won’t have been too pleased about the way McDonald was allowed to keep his team’s chances alive. His first strike in the 16th minute came courtesy of a woeful pass from goalkeeper Martin McNamara and then just when Galway had settled the ship with a superb goal by Savage, McDonald fired home another excellent shot to leave it level 2-5 to 1-8 at the interval.
Mayo would have been expected to build on those scores, but Galway were in total control of the second period. Disappointing, then, that they managed just two points, from Joyce and Jarlath Fallon, in the opening 20 minutes of the half. Still, their defense comfortably held the Mayo attacks at bay.
A McDonald point with a quarter of an hour left reduced the margin to a single point, but Joyce again and two Finnegan frees in the final stages gave Galway their just rewards.
Despite his obvious pleasure, Manager John O’Mahony wasn’t getting carried away with the result.
“We meet Leitrim in the semifinal next month and we must keep our feet on the ground,” he said. “That’s not going to be an easy match to win and we will have to tighten up our defense if we are going to go any further.”
Donegal 1-11, Antrim 0-11
As the shocks came thick and fast elsewhere in the football championship, Donegal were never going to lose this first-round Ulster tie at Casement Park, yet they won’t look back with pride on this unconvincing performance.
Armed with a 5-point lead after only 15 minutes, the favorites looked as if they were hell-bent on a landslide victory when it all began to go wrong. Inaccurate passing and wholesale indecision became the order of the day as Antrim were able to claw their way back into the game.
Donegal’s manager, Declan Bonner, admitted that his side would have to improve radically if they were to overcome either Cavan or Fermanagh on June 21. A total of six championship debutants might have unsettled the winners. However, it was still hard to explain how that impressive early focus disappeared.
A goal by Brendan Devenny after only two minutes was the ideal start, but as Ciaran O’Neill and James Murphy made their presence felt, Antrim had closed the gap to just two points by the 57th minute. It needed the calming experience of substitutes Brian Murray and Manus Boyle to get Donegal back on track and three points from Tony Boyle in the closing stages left Antrim waiting for their first championship win in 16 seasons.
Waterford 0-20, Kerry 1-9
The hangover of defeat in the National League final might have been a factor as Waterford struggled to overcome Kerry’s challenge in the first round of the Munster Hurling championship at Tralee.
All the expectation of a totally one-sided encounter was quickly turned on its head as Kerry dramatically drew level with 12 minutes remaining. If the fire was subsequently quenched by a storming Waterford finish that yielded eight unanswered points, Kerry were able to come away from the game with plenty of pride.
Dan Shanahan and Paul each had six points for Waterford, who now meet Tipperary in the semifinal at Pairc Ui Chaoimh, while John Mike Dooley scored Kerry’s goal.
Offaly 4-28, Meath 0-8
If Kerry gave Waterford a fright, there were no surprises as Offaly crushed Meath’s resistance in this frighteningly one-sided Leinster hurling quarterfinal at Croke Park.
Offaly had ambled into a 1-12 to 0-0 lead by the 25th minute and their farcical stroll continued for much of the second half as John Troy with 1-9 and Joe Dooley with 1-5 emerged as the game’s main scorers.