Meath claimed their first Leinster title since 2001 with a dramatic 1-12 to 1-10 win over Louth at Croke Park on Sunday.
There was heartbreak for the Wee County, who looked on the verge of winning a first Leinster crown in 53 years when they led by a single point three and a half minutes into added time at the end of a pulsating game.
However, just as it appeared that the Peter Fitzpatrick’s men were about to end more than half a century of hurt, they were dealt the cruellest blow imaginable, when Meath snatched a winning goal as the clock neared the 74th minute.
Louth, leading by the narrowest margin, repelled wave after wave of Meath attack, but they were undone by a long Graham Reilly punt into the square – the last play of the game. The ball fell for Seamus Kenny, whose shot was dramatically blocked by Paddy Keenan. The ball fell to Joe Sheridan, who smuggled the ball over the line and Eamonn O’Brien’s side won a game they scarcely deserved to.
Louth will feel hard done by, but some of the blame has to lie at their door. After trailing by three points, 0-8 to 0-5, at the break, they took control of the midfield and dominated the second half. However, they were guilty of kicking nine wides in the second half alone and Meath’s late goal would have been nothing more than a consolation had they taken their chances. They also missed two gilt-edged goal chances in the first half.
The sides were level at 0-10 apiece in the 63rd minute when JP Rooney snaffled a stunning goal. It looked to be the match winner at the time. A long ball caused mayhem in the Meath defence. Brian Meade should have cut out a long delivery but his attempted clearance fell for Rooney, who curled a wonderful shot into the top corner to leave Louth three points clear with seven minutes left.
However, Meath’s Cian Ward kicked two frees in as many minutes to reduce the gap to just one point. There were still five minutes left on the clock, but despite Meath’s best efforts, they simply could not break down a seemingly impregnable Louth defence. There were 13 red shirts behind the ball for most of the closing stages and they had heroes all over the pitch, with Keenan simply immense at midfield.
A minute into added time, they had a chance to win the game, but Brian White sent a free kick wide and there was an undeniable sense in the crowd that they would rue that missed opportunity. Two minutes earlier, Colm Judge had been sent off on a straight red card for a crude challenge on Kevin Reilly. Inevitably, Meath found a winner as the game ended controversially. The Royals go straight into the quarter-finals of the Leinster GAA Football All-Ireland quarter-finals, while Louth will have to pick themselves off the floor for Round 4 of the qualifiers.
An early Louth goal would have been a start in keeping with the narrative of a fairytale year. Thirty seconds had not passed when a long ball was sent in to test the Meath full-back line. The ball bounced and Rooney was allowed to turn and drive low shot at Brendan Murphy, the Meath goalkeeper. His shot trickled wide and there was an audible groan from the Wee faithful who, had taken over the Canal End of the stadium.
The Louth fans didn’t have long to wait for something to cheer about. In fact, Rooney made amends for his earlier profligacy when he opened the scoring in the fourth minute, turning Harrington and sending a splendid shot over the bar. Paddy Keenan sent Louth two points clear a minute later.
Meath appeared affronted by the brazenness of Louth’s start and set about establishing their dominance by kicking the next four points in succession. Graham Reilly, a major find for the Royals this year, kicked the first of four first-half points to get Meath off the mark. Reilly and Meath’s other wing-forward, Seamus Kenny, did all the damage in the first half. Kenny, in particular, was a menace in his role as a third midfielder, where he won an abundance of ball and provided vital back-up in the battle to stymie Louth’s midfield pairing of White and Keenan.
Reilly’s score was quickly followed by two fine efforts from Stephen Bray, who enjoys nothing more than the wide open spaces of Croke Park. His second score put Meath 0-3 to 0-2 ahead in the 12th minute. Cian Ward then doubled their lead from a placed ball.
Louth, playing in their first Leinster final for 50 years, weren’t going to roll over and have their tummy tickled. White kicked a pair of frees and they were level. Reilly and Judge traded scores before Meath kicked three points in succession just before the break to take a 0-8 to 0-5 lead into half-time.
Louth were transformed at the start of the second half and they took control of the midfield battle to finally provide consistent ball into their forwards. With a surfeit of possession, the Wee men set about tearing into Meath’s lead and it took them just 12 minutes to move ahead. White kicked a pair of points, before Judge and Adrian Reid scored two points of real beauty from play.
Meath had been stunned by Louth’s comeback and it was not until the 53rd minute that they managed a response. Ward levelled the game with a free and then Anthony Moyles put the Royals back into the lead with a fine score from play.
Andy McDonnell levelled the game for the sixth time in the 61st minute. Rooney then stole in for a goal and nobody could have predicted the drama that would unfold as Louth somehow contrived to blow their big chance.
Louth: N Gallagher; E McAuley, D Finnegan, R Greene; R Finnegan, M Fanning, J O’Brien; P Keenan (0-1), B White (0-4, 0-3f); A McDonnell (0-1), M Brennan, A Reid (0-1); C Judge (0-2, 0-1f), S Lennon, JP Rooney (1-1).
Louth Subs: S Fitzpatrick for Greene ’30, A Hoey for Fanning ’53, P Smith for Lennon ’58, D Byrne for A Reid ’62.
Meath: B Murphy; C O’Connor; K Reilly, W Harrington; A Moyles(0-1), G O’Brien, C King; B Meade, N Crawford (0-1); S Kenny, J Sheridan (1-0), G Reilly (0-4); C Ward (0-4, 0-4f), S O’Rourke, S Bray (0-2).
Meath Subs: C McGuinness for Moyles ’66, P Byrne for O’Rourke ’70.
Referee: M Sludden (Tír Eoghan)