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Meath in clinical Offaly disposal

Offaly were flat out trying to stay with Meath right from the start, but once they had midfielder John Coughlan dismissed in the 39th minute their prospects of winning this Leinster first-round clash evaporated quickly in the scorching heat at O'Moore Park, Portlaoise yesterday.

Coughlan was sent off on a straight red card for a foul on Anthony Moyles which referee Derek Fahy obviously deemed to be a deliberate elbow to the head, although the video footage is more forgiving towards the Offaly man, suggesting a higher degree of accident than intent in his clumsy challenge.

Meath were leading by a point (0-11 to 2-4) at the time and went on to make excellent use of the extra man as they out-scored Offaly by 1-9 to 0-3 from there to the finish. Offaly had relied on breakaway goals to keep in touch in the first half, but once they lost Coughlan they found it extremely difficult to get the ball into Niall McNamee, who was their main dangerman.

Despite carrying a leg injury, he always looked likely to cause problems for the Meath defence, but with an extra man in their ranks for most of the second half the Royals exerted tight security in front of their goal.

McNamee, John Reynolds and Ken Casey battled hard, but they were fighting a losing battle and as the intense heat took its toll on a depleted Offaly, there was never any real threat to Meath throughout the second half.

Not so in the first half, where the Meath defence wobbled precariously on a few occasions. McNamee's clever pass played centre-forward Brian Connor in on goal in the 22nd minute and he thumped a crisp drive to the net. It made major inroads into Meath's early points deposit which saw them kick seven in the opening 21 minutes.

Joe Sheridan, Stephen Bray and Shane O'Rourke were always menacing in open play while Cian Ward's accuracy from frees meant that every Offaly indiscretion was mercilessly punished.

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It was different at the other end where, despite landing a point from a delightful strike way out near the sideline, Niall Darby was not at ease with his place-kicking duties. He missed four frees in all, errors which Offaly could ill-afford against a team with an impressive capacity to kick points.

Meath's response to Connor's goal was to score three points but Offaly struck again in the 34th minute when McNamee collected a long drive from Ciaran McManus, jinked in along the end line before off-loading to Casey who swept the ball to the net.

Darby missed a relatively easy free a minute later and Meath had another let-off just before the break when McNamee's drive was blocked by Paddy O'Rourke. Offaly howled for a penalty, claiming that O'Rourke had fouled the ball, but the referee waved away their protests, leaving Meath to take a two-point lead (0-11 to 2-3) into the break.

In terms of possession it was a poor reflection of Meath's superiority, which had its origins in the midfield control exerted by Nigel Crawford and Mark Ward. Crawford was especially impressive under all headings and continued to stamp his authority on proceedings in the second half.

Apart from the difficulties with their free-taking, Offaly also brought trouble on themselves in defence, where efforts to find colleagues -- including from kick-outs, line balls and open play -- came undone with frustrating regularity through misplaced deliveries. It meant that Meath were often handed possession quite cheaply, much of which they turned into points.

For all that, Offaly were dangerous on the counter attack and would have felt at half-time that there were more goals to be chiselled out against the Meath defence. Casey cut the deficit to a single point a minute into the second half but Coughlan's dismissal changed the entire complexion of the game, leaving Meath comfortably in control as they advanced confidently to a quarter-final clash with Laois on June 13.

Meath kicked six unanswered points between the 48th and 56th minutes to lead by 0-19 to 2-5 and with the tempo dropping from there on, the game trundled to an inevitable conclusion. Meath saw it out in style in the 68th minute when Joe Sheridan scored a goal to take their total to an impressive 1-20.

Their attack certainly has plenty to recommend it, although it must be said that the Offaly defence made life a whole lot easier than they will find it against Laois in the next round. Shane O'Rourke's return after being troubled with injury for a long time is a welcome boost for Meath. He scored four excellent points yesterday and was also involved in much of the more enterprising play which stretched the Offaly defence to braking point.

The Meath midfield went well too, but manager Eamonn O'Brien will be looking at his defensive alignment to assess how they conceded two goals and came close to giving away one or two more.

As for Offaly, it was another disappointing day in an era when memories of the county's glory days are growing increasingly remote. The unfortunate truth for Offaly is that they have slipped well down the rankings and are showing no signs of arresting the slide.

They can point to Coughlan's dismissal as the killing agent yesterday but, frankly, it's most unlikely they would have won with a full complement. The first-half goals kept them in touch but, overall, Meath were a far more rounded team who, if they can sort out the defensive issues, could have an interesting summer.

Both sides were frustrated by some of the calls by Fahy, who interpreted the new handpass rule very strictly. Meath, in particular, felt that they were penalised on a few occasions for what they regarded as legal fistpasses which underlines the difficulties currently facing players.

However, Meath more than compensated with an impressive win while Offaly are already in second-chance territory awaiting the first-round Qualifiers on June 26.

Scorers - Meath: C Ward 0-8 (0-7f), J Sheridan 1-3, S O'Rourke 0-4, S Bray 0-2, G O'Brien, N Crawford, B Farrell (0-1f) 0-1 each.

Offaly: K Casey 1-2 (0-1f), B Connor 1-0, N Darby 0-2 (0-2f), N McNamee, A Sullivan, J Reynolds 0-1 each.

Meath -- P O'Rourke 6; C O'Connor 6, M Burke 6, E Harrington 6; G O'Brien 6, A Moyles 7, C King 7; N Crawford 9, M Ward 7; S Kenny 6, J Sheridan 8, G Reilly 7; C Ward 7, S O'Rourke 8, S Bray 7. Subs: P Byrne 7 for Reilly (54), C Gillespie 6 for M Ward (63), B Farrell 6 for C Ward (63), B Meade 6 for S O'Rourke (64), J Macken for Kenny (68).

Offaly - A Mulhall 6; P Sullivan 5, S Brady 5, S Sullivan 5; C Kiely 6, R Dalton 5, K Slattery 6; C McManus 6, J Coughlan 6; N Darby 5, B Connor 6, S Ryan 5; N McNamee 8, J Reynolds 7, K Casey 7. Subs: A Sullivan 7 for N Darby (48), A Lynam 5 for Ryan (48), B Geraghty 5 for McManus (59), R Brady 5 for Connor (61), S Lonergan for Kiely (71).

Ref - D Fahy (Longford).

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