THE curtain came down on Offaly's football year with a three point defeat by Meath in the Leinster U-20 Football Championship quarter-final at Navan's Pairc Tealteann on Tuesday.
A soft goal inside the first minute when Cian McBride fielded a hopeful punt with ease and blasted to the net proved the game's defining score as Offaly missed a decent chance of a morale boosting win and a Leinster semi-final against Laois.
Offaly competed very well on the day and had ample chances to have won. They made a dreadful start with that goal being followed instantly by a John Keane point and that left them with a mountain to climb but they knuckled down very well to haul themselves back into contention. They competed with Meath in every sector, matching or bettering them in several and it would not have taken a lot for them to have got the win.
Offaly will regret several missed chances, as they had some bad wides in the first half in particular – they hit the woodwork three times and also had a gilt edged goal opportunity. By half time, they were firmly in the hunt as they trailed by 0-7 to 1-5 and they got back on level terms early in the second half. Crucially, they couldn't get their noses in front and Meath played their best football to score four points without reply and lead by 1-9 to 0-8 after 41 minutes.
Offaly fought back very well from that and had a great chance to level it up again, just after Cian Farrell had cut the deficit to a goal with a 43rd minute free. Four minutes later, a great burst forward by Cathal Donoghue and some intelligent inter-play teed it up for Cian Johnson but he punched the ball wide from five yards out. It was as big a moment as Meath's goal and it was clear throughout the second half that Offaly would need a goal to survive.
It didn't come and Meath did have a chance a few minutes later as Luke Mitchell was wide with a good opening. Cian Farrell's 50th minute free reduced it to two points and the game was still there for Offaly but Meath reopened a four point gap with points from inform wing forward Daithi McGowan, a super score, and Connell Ahearne.
A great point from influential sub, Nathan Poland and another Farrell free left two in it once again as Offaly fought with everything they had. They pushed forward relentlessly, playing with a level of pace and intensity that had been missing for a ten minute spell earlier on in the second half as they played a bit too casually. However, a packed Meath defence was impossible to break down at that stage of the game as Cathal Donoghue had a penalty appeal turned down and a relieved home side scraped across the line – they got the final point from Danny Dixon deep in injury time while a second yellow card for Cian McBride was way too late to have any bearing on the game.
Meath were a highly rated side but after that blistering start, they quickly found out that they were in for a serious challenge from a highly motivated Offaly. Cian Farrell started off like a train in a hurry and he got two points to haul Offaly back into the game – they were unlucky as Farrell and Cian Johnson hit the woodwork with point shots while Johnson was also wide via the post with a second half fisted effort, and those three misses were to prove crucial.
Luke Mitchell and Cian Johnson exchanged points before Meath got three on the trot to lead by 1-5 to 0-3 after 24 minutes. They were the better side at this stage but Offaly rallied the forces to great effect before the interval. The lively Jack Bryant and Shane O'Toole-Greene fisted points and Cian Farrell had a poor wide from a free before Jack O'Brien and Farrell (free) got points deep in injury time to make it a one point game at the break.
It was a strange performance from Offaly. They showed tremendous hunger and desire but were quite mediocre at times. They were up against physically strong opposition and they tried to play their strengths but their volume of errors and missed chances was quite high. Offaly worked hard but they were not clinical enough. They had a good chance of winning and Meath wouldn't have had any complaints if the result went against them but Offaly don't have a real hard luck story to tell either. On the day, their best was just not quite good enough.
There were some very good performances by the losers. Ciaran Donnelly recovered from a hesitant start to play very well, winning a lot of ball and driving forward when he could. Adam Bolger and Clive Keena were diligent in the defensive basics when Meath were on top in the first half while Ed Bennett held the centre well.
Cathal Donoghue did some very good things at midfield, moving very well, even though Meath won this battle overall. Sean Farrell gave a terrifically hard working hour in the attack, full of honest endeavour, work rate and doing the simple things well, though he did make a couple of mistakes. Cian Farrell was Offaly's main scoring threat on a day when Cian Johnson struggled to get possession and manufacture space. Shane O'Toole-Greene also got on a lot of ball in the attack while Nathan Poland made a very good impact when he came on, getting a point and helping create Johnson's goal chance but apart from Farrell, scoring was an ordeal for the Offaly attack. The decision to take off Jack Bryant in the 40th minute was questionable – the young Shamrocks man moved well, was lively and looked like he had something to offer but was called ashore after not winning a couple of balls into his area: in fairness to team management, Bryant is just out of minor and Meath were physically strong at the back.
MEATH: Andrew Beakey; Sean Ryan, Robbie Clarke, Cathal Hickey; Eoin harkin, John Keane, Oisin Martin; Liam Byrne, Cian McBride; Matthew Costello, Cian Swaine, Daithi McGowan; Jordan Morris, Connell Ahearne, Luke Mitchell. Subs – Danny Dixon for Swaine (half time), Sean Bannon for Martin (45m), Aaron Lynch for Mitchell (52m), Cathal Finnegan for Morris (57m), Daragh Nolan for Ahearne (61m).
OFFALY: Jack Cullinan (Ferbane); Adam Bolger (Daingean), Aidan Bracken (Ballycommon), Clive Kenna (Ballycumber); Ciaran Donnelly (Bracknagh), Ed Bennett (Clonbullogue), Jack O’Brien (Durrow); Jack McEvoy (Clonbullogue), Cathal Donoghue (Kilcormac/Killoughey); Seanie Farrell (Tubber), Cian Farrell (Edenderry), Shane O’Toole-Greene (Shamrocks); Cian Johnson (Ferbane), Jack Bryant (Shamrocks), Kevin McDermott (Durrow). Subs – Nathan Poland (Erin Rovers) for Bryant (40m), Dan Wyer (Ballinamere) for McEvoy (44m), Eon Dunne (Edenderry) for O'Toole-Greene (52m), Mikey Cunningham (Bracknagh) for Wyer (black card, 61m), Kieran Dolan (Shamrocks) for Bracken (62m).
Referee – John Hickey (Carlow).
MAN OF THE MATCH
Liam Byrne (Meath): Liam Byrne got a couple of heavy knocks that required lengthy treatment but went on to have a big influence. The Meath midfielder won a lot of ball and the two placed balls he converted, a first half '45' and a huge second half free, were crucial in their win. Cian McBride and Daithi McGowan also had excellent games for Meath while Ciaran Donnelly, Cian Farrell and Seanie Farrell were among the Offaly players who stepped up to the challenge.
MOMENT OF THE MATCH
The game's big moment arrived just after 55 seconds when Cian McBride fielded an Oisin Martin ball and booted home the only goal. That goal was always there and ultimately separated the sides.
It was strange to see a referee allow the game run to the extent that John Hickey did. Normally that free flowing policy is operated in hurling and not football, but Hickey showed a real reluctance to blow the whistle all evening. There is merit in allowing the play to run but at the same time, it meant that several obvious fouls were not penalised. The Carlow man was very consistent in the way that he refereed and they balanced out but both sides were frustrated at not getting frees they deserved. Offaly could have got an injury time penalty as Cathal Donoghue tried to get in on goal but considering the amount of similar fouls not awarded earlier, they were never going to get that call at that stage of the game.
It was another brave, fighting performance by Offaly but it was another defeat. At least Offaly are now competing against most teams in the province in football games but patience will run out with “gallant defeats”. Offaly weren't far off here but the development of a winning mentality and taking games that are there for the taking is the next challenge for players in the county.
Pairc Tealteann was in fine condition on a lovely summer's evening and a decent sized crowd created a good atmosphere.
Meath were scheduled to play Laois in the semi-final last night (Tuesday) while Offaly's year is over.
Wides: Offaly – 10 (6 in first half); Meath – 8 (4 in first half).
Yellow cards: Offaly – 0; Meath – 3 (Sean Ryan and Cian McBride, 2).
Black cards: Offaly – 1 (Dan Wyer); Meath – 0.
Red cards: Offaly – 0; Meath – 1 (Cian McBride, 2 yellows).
Meath: Cian McBride 1-0, Daithi McGowan 0-3, Liam Byrne (1f and 1 45) and Luke Mitchell 0-2 each, John Keane, Matthew Costello, Jordan Morris, Connell Ahearne and Danny Dixon 0-1 each.
Offaly: Cian Farrell 0-7 (5f), Jack O'Brien, Shane O'Toole-Greene, Cian Johnson, Jack Bryant and Nathan Poland 0-1 each.