By Kieran Rooney
IF you thought that the World Cup final was controversial, it had nothing on what happened at last Sunday's Leinster Football Championship decider between Meath and Louth at Croke Park.
With the game well into injury time, and Louth on the verge of celebrating their first Leinster success since 1957, Meath scored what will surely go down as one of the most controversial goals in the history of the game. Referee Martin Sludden's decision to allow it meant that Meath had snatched a 1-12 to 1-10 success.
But that may not be the end of the matter. Louth, among others, have called for a replay and there was even a suggestion that the Meath County Board could agree to such a request. Anyone who watched the incident either in the stadium or on television will understand exactly why Louth were so aggrieved.
To recount, Louth were holding on to a one point lead when Meath's Graham Reilly sent a high ball into the goal-mouth. Seamus Kelly won possession but saw his shot blocked.
Eventually the ball spun out of Louth defender Dessie Finnegan's grasp, and Meath's Joe Sheridan got hold of it. His momentum subsequently saw him go off his feet and carry the ball over the line.
Quite clearly, this was illegal and significantly the umpires didn't initially raise the green flag to signal a goal. But the goal stood.
When the whistle blew for full-time, there were chaotic and, it must be said, disgraceful scenes. While the Louth supporters frustration was understandable, the the way the referee was accosted could never be condoned.
Predictably, Louth manager Peter Fitzpatrick was fuming. So much so, that he didn't attend the press conference.
But he did speak later on local radio stating "It's hard to swallow. I just think it's a disgraceful decision by the referee. I thought he (Sheridan) threw the ball into the net.
"I asked the referee, why did you give that goal? He explained he was going to give a penalty. Why didn't you consult your umpires?
"One of our players Aaron Hoey asked him to consult the umpires and he told the umpire to put his flag up. So, what is the point of having umpires?"
"A draw would have been a fair result. It was pure daylight robbery. I'm very, very annoyed." Interestingly, the scorer Joe Sheridan went as far as to say he thought it was a perfect goal.
"People are saying I threw it in, but I was heading for the line and I just dropped the ball and it was in the net. I was pushed over the line, so it should have been a penalty anyway. I think it was a perfect goal."
Meath manager Eamonn O'Brien didn't quite go as far. But he did argue that many decisions had gone against Meath, adding: "Decisions are made and you live with it. That's the way I see it."
As for the game itself, played in front of a crowd of 48,875, Meath never got close to the sort of form which saw them put five goals past Dublin. Louth had a marvellous opportunity to win with something to spare but wasted a number of guilt edged chances.
After trailing by 0-8 to 0-5 at the interval, Louth took control. When JP Rooney scored an opportunist goal eight minutes from time to give them a 1-10 to 0-10 advantage, they appeared to be well on their way to that long overdue Leinster triumph.
But Meath, inspired by Graham Reilly, were to reduce the deficit to just a point before that dramatic and much debated match-winning Sheridan goal in injury time.
Elsewhere, Cork, Dublin, Derry, Down, Wexford, Armagh, Offaly and Kildare came through the second round of the qualifiers. Cork, predictably, were far too good for a very poor Cavan outfit at Pairc Ui Chaoimh, winning by 1-19 to 0-4.
Dublin beat Tipperary by 1-21 to 1-13 at Croke Park but, once again, were not convincing. The big surprise came in Pearse Stadium where Wexford got the better of Galway by 1-11 to 0-13, leaving manager Joe Kernan to ponder his future with the Tribesman.
Derry beat Westmeath 0-13 to 1-7, Down got the better of Longford 1-14 to 1-10, Offaly defeated Waterford 0-15 to 0-10, Armagh accounted for Fermanagh 0-11 to 0-7 and Kildare saw off Leitrim 1-12 to 0-6. The draw for the third round of the qualifiers will see Dublin face Armagh in what seems to be the pick of the games.
It's an extremely tough draw for the Dubs but at least they will have home advantage. The other third round qualifying games will see Derry take on Kildare at Celtic Park, Offaly have home advantage against Down, while Wexford's reward for their fine victory over Galway is a difficult home game against Cork.
Cork, Waterford must do it again
BECAUSE of the controversial events at Croke Park, an exciting Munster Hurling final between Cork and Waterford at Semple Stadium was overshadowed. It didn't deserve to be.
The match, played in front of a crowd of 35,375, ended in a 2-15 to 2-15 draw with Waterford securing the equalizing goal in the fourth minute of added time. The replay will take place at the same venue on Saturday.
If Cork were somewhat annoyed at the awarding of the late 20-metre free, they could hardly complain about Waterford's right to a replay. But few could have imagined that the equalizing score would come from veteran Tony Browne.
Cork's contingent of goalkeeper Donal Og Cusack and six defenders on the goal line managed to smother Eoin Kelly's shot. But Browne was first to respond as the ball came out and swept a shot into the net.
Even then, Cork had a chance of snatching it but substitute Michael Cussen saw his shot drop short. That said, it was hard to be critical of Cussen as he had made a major impact after coming on as a substitute.
Overall, no one was going to complain about a replay. Had Waterford lost, they would have found it very hard to take as they had been in control for most of the match.
Not that a great deal happened in a somewhat disappointing first half, at the end of which Waterford led by 0-7 to 0-6. All that was to change when Cork opted for the more direct approach after the interval.
They were rewarded with two cracking goals. The first came from Aisake O hAilpin and this was quickly followed by an equally good effort from Ben O'Connor.
Now Waterford needed something special. They got it in the shape of an Eoin Kelly shot which flew into the corner of the net.
That was the end of the goals until 37-year-old Browne came up with the dramatic equalizing score in added time. Waterford manager Davy Fitzgerald is adamant that he is looking forward to the replay.
"We have learned our lessons." he said. "We lost our way when we were four points up in the second half and it cost us. But we are happy with the way we finished the game, There is real character in this team."
Cork manager Denis Walsh was understandably a bit mystified by the awarding of the late Waterford free. But he accepted that his team had played second fiddle for much of the match.
"Waterford dominated us for 65 per cent of the time and we needed to pick up in the second half. Our first half was a disaster and we will have to sort that out for the replay."
Elsewhere in the hurling championship, Dublin and Offaly qualified for the third round of the qualifiers. Dublin were quite impressive in seeing off Clare by 2-22 to 0-15 at Croke Park and will now face Antrim in the next round of the qualifiers.
If they reproduce the form shown against Clare they have every chance. Offaly were nowhere near as impressive in getting the better of Limerick by 1-19 to 1-13 but, as manager Joe Dooley puts it, they are probably better suited when they are the underdogs.
That is exactly what they will be when they face Tipperary in the next qualifying round. For Limerick's second string outfit, it was a better than expected end to what has been a season to forget.