That was more like it. Donegal were still a long way short of their best in edging out Meath on Saturday night but there were pointers of improvement from their two previous outings.
Many of the traits associated with this team showed signs of reappearing – committing numbers to attack, intensity in defence, quick transfer of the ball in tight spaces – and while this was far from a blemish-free display, they left with what they came for, the win.
After the dull football witnessed by the masses in Ballybofey a week previously, this felt much more like a Championship encounter; a sun drenched Summer Saturday evening in the glorious setting of Pairc Tailteann.
The game was tight and claustrophobic to being with. The teams were feeling each other out. Slowly but surely it was the visitors who took control and the scores started to come.
Mark Anthony McGinley had success early on in finding his players with his short restarts. Meath attempted to push up but there was often a man free on the edge of the D. Anytime the hosts managed to cover all options and McGinley was forced to go long, the Meath midfield, led superbly by Bryan Menton, were winning the middle third battle.
The dependency on going short was illustrated with Meath’s first point from play. As the ball hung in the air on its way goalwards, McGinley rushed around his right hand post to grab a ball and his kicking tee, getting ready for the impending kick-out.
Unbeknownst to the St Michael’s netminder, the ball was to strike the upright and could have easily landed in front of his unguarded goal. Fortunately the ball went over after the bar after striking the post.
It provides an insight into the ongoing problems facing Donegal – if they’re forced to kick long they’re vulnerable.
As usual though in purely goalkeeping terms, McGinley was excellent. One crucial moment in the game happened in the first half; as a Meath shot looked to be dropping over the bar, McGinley rose high to claw the effort away and prevented what seemed a certain point. In a game of such tight margins it was a magnificent piece of play.
Meath rallied before half time to grab the last two points of the opening exchanges, the sides going in level after Donegal had probably been the better side.
Youngsters Jason McGee and Caolán Ward had been Donegal’s best performers in that first half with McGee helping himself to two well taken points in the process.
Another plus was Kieran Gillespie’s contribution. He’s had a frustrating time with injuries but everyone is well aware of the quality and ruggedness he brings to the table and getting the full seventy minutes under his belt bodes well.
In the second half, it was the established brigade who made the difference. Michael Murphy was immense around the middle and despite having an off day with his free taking, the captain played a huge role in the win.
In the congested centrefield area, when plenty Donegal players were happy to pass the ball on, Murphy on a few occasions drove through the Meath rearguard and either scored or setup up opportunities for his team mates.
Others like Ryan McHugh and match winner Paddy McBrearty were outstanding. The Kilcar duo seemed to thrive in the high pressure environment, delivering when it mattered most.
McHugh hasnt been his normal stunning self in the last few matches, somewhat understandable given that he’s barely put a foot wrong since his breakthrough young player of the year winning season in 2014. A dip at some stage was perhaps inevitable but he produced a massive final quarter in Navan, starting and finishing the move for the crucial goal.
While form can be a fickle thing with footballers, it doesn’t seem to apply to one man – Paddy McGrath. Once again, he had a fantastic match, this time charged with keeping tabs on one of the country’s most accomplished finishers, Graham Reilly.
In the second half, Reilly simply could not break free from McGrath’s shackles. The one and only time the Meath captain managed to get into a half yard of space for an attempt on goal, McGrath flung himself at the shot, the ball flying high into the evening sky and not even reaching the endline such was the pressure applied.
McGrath knew that he was inside Reilly’s head by this stage. When the psychological battle has been won by a defender, a forward will almost always snatch at the chance when it comes his way.
McHugh’s goal seemed to have finally broken the home team’s resistance but the Royals to their credit refused to lie down and responded almost immediately. The two goals were similar in the creation, both teams running the ball through traffic before finding the opening.
It was encouraging to see three Donegal players getting in behind the Meath defence and in a position to finish the chance; a sign that the energy and drive were back after being absent in the last two games.
Meath got the next point after their equalising major and the outcome was in doubt to the end as the embers began to fade on what was a stirring championship bout.
Karl Lacey was brought on to steady the ship and in being a complete and utter nuisance in slowing Meath down in the dying seconds, he played his part. When the final whistle is blown on Donegal’s season, presumably it will also signal the end of Lacey’s illustrious county career.
The Four Masters legend obviously didn’t want it to end in the qualifiers and so he stood in front of Paddy O’Rourke’s kickout following McBrearty’s winner and then promptly dragged back a Meath defender when the kick was taken to earn himself a yellow card. Dark arts indeed.
The final shrill of the referee’s whistle sounded soon after and Donegal were through. Galway await in Round 4 and despite a tough, sobering summer one win is all that’s required for a place in the Quarter Finals.
If the same rate of improvement that occurred from Longford to Meath, can accrue from Meath to Galway then Rory Gallagher will be confident his charges can seal their place in Croke Park.