Meath’s Adam O’Neill in action with Paul Mannion of Dublin at Croke Park on Sunday. [Inpho/Ryan Byrne]

Dublin overcome Meath resistance in 2nd half at Croker

Dublin 3-19; Meath 0-12

This was more of a test for the Dubs than the final scoreline suggests as Colm O’Rourke’s young Meath team put it up to them for 45 minutes before the holders turned on the after-burners and ended up winning by 16-points at Croke Park on Sunday.

Goals don’t just win matches, they deflate the team letting them in and this is what happened to the Royal lads as they were run ragged in that final quarter.

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The green flags  by Seán Bugler,  the excellent Paul Mannion who notched 1-6 on the day without breaking sweat, and the unmarkable Con O'Callaghan, a mere 1-2 to his credit, meant Dublin eased into the semi-final where they will meet Offaly following their 2-13 to 1-8 victory over 14-man Laois in Portlaoise on Saturday evening.

A pyrrhic victory for the Faithful who know they have no chance of winning but every chance of being beaten out the gate by this Dublin machine.

Meath are arguably the best of the rest in Leinster so if they are whipped by 16-points where does that leave the likes of Offaly? A good performance and a loss by less than 15 points should be viewed as real progress for the men in the tricolor.

On Sunday such was the nature of this game being a foregone conclusion that only  21,000 turned up in Croker for the contest. Imagine those great games of the 1980s and ’90s, particularly when these two same teams filled the old stadium four times in that never to be forgotten  1991 series of first-round Leinster games.

The biggest excitement surrounded the return of 40-something goalkeeper Stephen Cluxton along with his fellow nine-time Celtic Cross winners Mick Fitzsimons, who started the game, and James McCarthy, who came into the fray in the second half.

Cluxton hadn't played at this level since last year’s All Ireland final and his radar was way off with his restarts as he gifted Meath nine out of the first ten kick outs he took on the day.

That is something that can be partly explained by the absence of suspended midfielder Brian Fenton, who was sitting in the stands after being sent off , unfairly in my view, in the league final against Derry.

It will be a different story against Offaly as Cluxton will have the trusty left peg well oiled by then and Fenton’s presence will give options of going long knowing that the star midfielder is favorite to catch the high ball.

In fairness to Meath they were very competitive in the first half and for ten minutes or so of the second when the likes of  Darragh Campion, Ronan Jones  and Jordan Morris all showed up well.

Unfortunately for them Mannion was gliding across the grass and his kicks were all over the black spot as Dublin edged into a lead that was cemented with a killer counter attack which yielded the first goal of the game by Bugler.

O’Callaghan lofted over a lovely mark with his left and Colm Basquel  hit a brace to leave the provincial and All Ireland champs 1-8 to 0-6 ahead by the blast of the short whistle.

The third quarter is where Dublin go after their opponents and that was evident in the way they hounded the Billy Hogan restarts for Meath with Niall Scully and John Small taking advantage to take on a further three points. The game was slipping away from Meath at this stage but they were fighting valiantly and only their inexperience in getting turned over thwarted them from adding a few more scores of their own.

A Niall Scully mark restored Dublin’s six-point buffer within a minute of the restart, with John Small also kicking a smart score off his left as Dublin seized ferociously of Hogan’s kick-outs. Sub James O’Connor showed amazing pace to panic the Dubs defense with a few incisive runs which resulted in a score but once McCarthy came on, the backs got on top again.

Just before the hour mark, the final gong was sounded when Mannion was at the end of a great forward move to plant the ball in the net.

Dublin kept the scoreboard ticking over thanks to subs Cormac Costello and Paddy Small with points before O’Callaghan thrust the dagger into the dying corpse with the third goal deep into stoppage time.

Dublin: S Cluxton; E Murchan, M Fitzsimons, S MacMahon; S Bugler (1-0), J Small (0-2), C Murphy (0-1); T Lahiff, B Howard; R McGarry, C Basquel (0-2), C Kilkenny (0-3); P Mannion (1-6, 0-3f), C O’Callaghan (1-2, 0-1m), N Scully (0-1m) Subs: J McCarthy for Basquel (50), P Small (0-1) for Scully (52), C Costello (0-1) for Mannion (61), K McGinnis for McGarry (61), P Ó Cofaigh Byrne for J Small (65).

Meath: B Hogan (0-1, ’45); H O’Higgins, D Keogan, A O’Neill; S Coffey, R Ryan, C Caulfield (0-1); R Jones (0-1m), D McGowan; M Costello (0-1), D Campion (0-1), C Hickey; E Frayne (0-3, 0-2f), J Conlon (0-1), J Morris (0-3) Subs: J O’Connor for Campion (half-time), C McBride for McGowan (45), K Curtis for Morris (58), Rí Kinsella for Ryan (58), A Lynch for Conlon (61).

Ref: T Murphy (Galway).

Armagh 3-11; Fermanagh 0-9

Brewster Park can often be a graveyard for a visiting team with big notions but on this occasion Kieran McGeeney and his merry men rode roughshod through the homesters thanks to three first half goals which turned the game from being a contest into an exhibition on Sunday afternoon.

Poor Fermanagh didn’t know what hit them as the trigger-happy Orchard boys came thirsting for goals and Conor Turbitt, Jarly Óg Burns and Stefan Campbell obliged to leave the visitors leading 3-4 to 0-2 lead at the interval.

With an 11-point lead, there was never a way back for the hosts but they were better on the resumption and in terms of scoring both sides raised seven white flags each for the second moiety.

Armagh would probably have preferred  a sterner test to have them better prepared for the semi-final joust with Down but they can only beat what is in front of them and they were clinical for as long as they needed to be before deciding to take the foot of the pedal for most of the second half when they just went through the motions waiting for the final whistle to sound.

Armagh will probably be most happy that  Rian O’Neill came through his second start of the year unscathed and will be warm favorites to defeat the Mournemen in the semi.

For the men in green,  it will be a sad week of reflection but the only way they can hoist themselves out of championship despair is to have a right crack at winning the Tailteann Cup.

Armagh: B Hughes; P Burns, A McKay, P McGrane; J McElroy, C Mackin (0-2) A Forker; R O’Neill (0-1) B Crealey; S Campbell (1-2), R Grugan (0-1f) C Turbitt (1-0); O Conaty, A Murnin (0-2) J Óg Burns (1-1) Subs: B McCambridge (0-1) for McKay (45), O’Neill (0-1) for Burns (48); A Nugent for Murnin; C Mackin for  O’Neill (56), T Kelly for Turbitt (63).

Fermanagh: R Bogue; L Cullen, C Cullen, O Smyth; D McCusker, S McGullion, C McManus; R McCaffrey, J McDade; C McGee (0-1) C McShea (0-1) F O’Brien (0-2); U Kelm (0-1) G Jones (0-1f) S Cassidy (0-1f) Subs: J Ellis for McManus (22), B  Horan for C McGee and C Love (0-2) for Jones (49),J Cassidy for Smyth; D McGurn for McCusker (61).

Ref: J McQuillan (Cavan).


Leinster SF Championship 

Kildare 0-16; Wicklow 1-12

Louth 4-10; Wexford 0-15

Offaly 2-13; Laois 1-8

Dublin 3-19; Meath 0-12

Ulster SF Championship

Down 0-13; Antrim 0-9

Armagh 3-11; Fermanagh 0-9