No semi-final spot but plenty of positives
Bord na Móna O'Byrne Cup: Meath 1-20 Wexford 1-13
Wexford's quest for a place in the last four of the Bord na Móna O'Byrne Cup Senior football tournament ended in defeat to Meath in St. Patrick's Park, Enniscorthy, on Saturday, but mentors and players alike ought to have learned a lot from their three outings as attention now turns towards the league opener away to Leitrim on January 27.
The home side went toe-to-toe with their Division 2 rivals throughout the opening half-hour, but a slack spell just before the break was repeated in the early stages on the re-start, allowing the Royals to drive on to victory.
The sides were deadlocked for the first time on 0-5 each when Jonathan Bealin converted his third free in the 30th minute, but Meath kicked four points without reply between then and half-time to give a taste of what was to follow.
Having said that, Wexford had sufficient chances to erase that deficit when the action resumed, but four wides in five minutes from Bealin (free), Kevin O'Grady, John Tubritt and impressive midfielder Niall Hughes meant they didn't avail of territorial dominance.
Meath were more economical in attack, making good use in particular of the long ball to talented full-forward Michael Newman who provided the best possible test for rookie defender Gavin Sheehan.
The visitors' lead was extended to 0-14 to 0-8 by the end of the third quarter after Newman won a 50-50 contest from a Graham Reilly delivery, and lively substitute Seán Tobin killed off the slim hopes of a Wexford revival in the 55th minute when he goaled after good work by James McEntee and Gavin McCoy.
The losers did raise a consolation green flag with an opportunist lob by Donal Shanley after a goalkeeping error, but they were never going to erase the deficit and Meath secured a semi-final clash against Dublin with seven points to spare.
A draw would have been enough for Wexford to advance from this Group 3 clash and get another chance to repeat last year's win over the third string All-Ireland champions.
Both teams had already accounted for Laois before Christmas, while the cross-over games against teams in other groups saw the Slaneysiders beat Louth whereas Meath were pipped by Longford.
A victory was essential for the Royals to advance ahead of Wexford on the head-to-head rule, and they duly obliged on a mild day in good conditions.
Three changes were made from the side which defeated Laois at the same venue on December 20 by 2-13 to 1-11, with Glynn-Barntown's Matt Doyle given a chance in goal instead of Conor Swaine.
Tiarnan Rossiter started at left half-back in the absence of new captain Michael Furlong, with Martin O'Connor dropping back to the right corner, while John Tubritt came in at left corner-forward for David Shannon.
The game was only 22 seconds old when Meath were penalised for four consecutive handpasses, but they made the same error just one more time, in the 66th minute.
Wexford were caught out just once, but it was an extremely costly slip as it led to a well-taken goal from Tubritt being disallowed midway through the second quarter.
The exchanges had been generally even prior to that, with Darragh Campion and Kevin O'Grady swapping early wides before Meath wing-back Niall Kane moved forward to kick two fine points, the first off his left peg and the second via his right.
Matt Doyle had a difficult afternoon with his kick-outs, sending three in total over the sideline, but his shot-stopping was excellent and he made his first fine save in the ninth minute to thwart a flowing Meath move.
Niall Hickey sent a foot pass to Thomas O'Reilly who didn't take the option of a mark and a free kick at the posts, racing goalwards instead and popping a pass to his right to Michael Newman whose low shot was parried smartly by Doyle.
Robert Frayne kicked the second of Wexford's nine wides before opposing goalkeeper Barry Dardis, an outfield player with his club, Summerhill, turned a Jonathan Bealin shot away for a '45 after a decent build-up featuring Shane Doyle and Kevin O'Grady.
The kick that followed from Niall Hughes fell short, but it was gathered by John Tubritt who was fouled and Bealin duly opened Wexford's account in the 13th minute.
After a Barry O'Connor wide, a neat Meath point by the always-threatening Thomas O'Reilly was cancelled by Tubritt whose shot from the left corner came at the end of an attack involving O'Grady and Bealin (0-3 to 0-2).
The fourth and final Wexford wide of the half followed from Glen Malone, before an unusual incident when referee John Hickey blew in error for a mark for Bealin who was outside the '45 at the time.
However, he immediately acknowledged his mistake with a shout to the Meath mentors who were close by, and the game continued without any stoppage.
The physically powerful Bryan Menton kicked a booming point from distance before a foul on Tiarnan Rossiter led to Jonathan Bealin narrowing the gap to 0-4 to 0-3 in the 24th minute.
The Meath kick-out that followed was knocked down by Niall Hughes into the path of his midfield partner, Barry O'Connor, and the entire half-forward line of Conor Devitt, Bealin and Robert Frayne all had touches of the ball before John Tubritt drove it to the net.
Initially, it looked like referee Hickey was happy to award the goal, but the intervention of a linesman meant it was disallowed for four handpasses. The exact same thing had happened in Darver on December 8 when the man in the middle on that occasion, David O'Connor, was alerted to a similar situation after Paul Curtis netted versus Louth.
Darragh Campion made it a two-point game before a crossfield pass from Jonathan Bealin led to Niall Hughes kicking a fine point from 45 metres. And Wexford's hard work was rewarded in the 29th minute when they drew level for the first time, with Bealin slotting over his third free after John Tubritt was held off the ball by Thomas McGovern (0-5 each).
Alas, Meath prospered in the lead-up to the interval, as four points without reply from Adam Flanagan, Michael Newman (free), Thomas O'Reilly and Darragh Campion left them with a lead that was somewhat harsh on Wexford.
Having said that, the gap could have been seven, as a stray handpass by Gavin Sheehan in added time led to Newman setting up Ben Brennan for a goal chance that produced another excellent save from Matt Doyle.
Those four early Wexford wides on the re-start were punished as Meath kicked three of the first four points, establishing a 0-12 to 0-6 lead by the 46th minute that was never under threat thereafter.
Thomas O'Reilly made it 10-5 before Cathal Devereux's first involvement after coming off the bench was to convert a left-footed free.
Ben Brennan and Michael Newman created that six-point gap before Eoghan Nolan found Kevin O'Grady who raced in from the right corner and fisted a point via the far post.
Talented Meath substitute Graham Reilly was next to register a score, but O'Grady - at centre-forward for the second-half - kicked a beauty with the outside of his left boot from a Jonathan Bealin assist to leave Wexford trailing by five points in the 50th minute (0-13 to 0-8).
The Wexford mentors made full use of the relaxed rules on substitutions by introducing all ten outfield players listed on the squad of 26 after the interval.
Supporters were delighted to see Brian Malone entering the fray for his 152nd appearance, while at the other end of the spectrum there was a Senior inter-county debut for his Shelmaliers clubmate, James Cash.
The latter was the fifth player to gain this distinction in the three-game campaign, following in the footsteps of Jonathan Bealin, Conor Devitt and late substitute Seán Barden against Louth, plus John Roche who had a brief involvement near the end versus Laois.
Meath's deadly inside attacking duo of Newman and O'Reilly widened the gap to seven before Cathal Devereux converted his second free, but the visitors' goal arrived just over 40 seconds later.
James McEntee burst through a few attempted tackles before finding Gavin McCoy, and he in turn passed to substitute Seán Tobin who gave Matt Doyle no chance with a powerful shot (1-15 to 0-9).
The rival number 15s, John Tubritt and Thomas O'Reilly, swapped points before Tobin had another gilt-edged chance to double his goal tally, but he pulled his low shot to the left and wide after O'Reilly put him in the clear.
Eoghan Nolan kicked a good long-range point from a Barry O'Connor pass, but Mickey Burke and Bryan Menton hit back for Meath before O'Connor provided another assist for Cathal Devereux (1-18 to 0-12).
Overlapping defender Alan Nolan had a chance to palm a goal from close range after a one-two with Ben Brosnan in the 67th minute, but he lost his footing and Meath cleared their lines.
Eoghan Nolan kicked a superb solo point after a run down the right flank, and netminder Barry Dardis made a mess of the re-start, sending it straight to a grateful Donal Shanley.
The St. Fintan's attacker placed a delicate lob into the right corner of the net, with the retreating Dardis getting a touch on the ball but to no avail (1-18 to 1-13).
James McEntee responded with a point, and the game's sole black card followed in added time when Gavin Sheehan took down Thomas O'Reilly.
His sin-binning had no impact with mere seconds remaining, similar to the situation when Shane Doyle was dismissed against Laois at the same stage. Glen Malone had to sit out ten minutes early in the second-half in that victory over the O'Moore county before Christmas, and that was the only time thus far when Wexford had to deal with a numerical disadvantage during a spell that really mattered.
Seán Tobin tapped over the free that followed Sheehan's dismissal, but there was one incredible aspect worth nothing: that was the only foul by a Wexford player in the second-half, and they had conceded a mere three frees before the break too on an afternoon when 1-18 of the winners' tally came from play.
In contrast, Wexford were awarded a whopping 25 frees (12 plus 13), and, for the record, yellow cards were shown to Meath duo Ben Brennan and Darragh Campion.
The only offensive mark in the entire game was called by Donal Shanley close to the right sideline in added time, but he missed the target for the losers' ninth and final wide.
Incidentally, the earlier victories against Louth and Laois marked the first time Wexford had put at least two wins back-to-back since the first five Division 4 league outings of 2017 were won under the guidance of Seamus McEnaney.
Those successes also meant that manager Paul McLoughlin has already matched his win record for the entirety of the 2018 campaign when Dublin and Armagh were defeated in the O'Byrne Cup and league respectively.
And with the grand total of 32 players getting game-time in the three-game series, it has been a worthwhile exercise on the whole and an encouraging start to what will hopefully be a long year.
FOOTNOTE: Many onlookers, this writer included, were surprised and disappointed by the lack of a minute's silence for the late Scott Doran at Saturday's game, which was the first played by a county team since his sudden death. After all he did for Wexford football, surely it was the least he deserved.
Wexford: Matt Doyle; Martin O'Connor, Gavin Sheehan, Conor Carty (capt.); Glen Malone, Shane Doyle, Tiarnan Rossiter; Barry O'Connor, Niall Hughes (0-1); Robert Frayne, Jonathan Bealin (0-3 frees), Conor Devitt; Paul Curtis, Kevin O'Grady (0-2), John Tubritt (0-2). Subs. - Cathal Devereux (0-3, 2 frees) for Curtis (43), Eoghan Nolan (0-2) for Frayne (43), Eoin Porter for Rossiter (49), Brian Malone for Devitt (51), James Cash for Carty (53), Donal Shanley (1-0) for Bealin (53), Ben Brosnan for O'Grady (57), Mark O'Neill for S. Doyle (60), Alan Nolan for M. O'Connor (63), Darragh Pepper for Tubritt (63).
Meath: Barry Dardis; Thomas McGovern, Seamus Lavin, Ronan Ryan; Niall Kane (0-2), Donal Keogan, Gavin McCoy; Bryan Menton (capt., 0-2), Adam Flanagan (0-1); Niall Hickey, Darragh Campion (0-2), Ethan Devine; Thomas O'Reilly (0-4), Michael Newman (0-4, 1 free), Ben Brennan (0-1). Subs. - Eoin Lynch for Ryan, temp. (9-16), Graham Reilly (0-1) for Devine (HT), Lynch for McGovern, inj. (39), James McEntee (0-1) for Brennan (47), Seán Tobin (1-1, 0-1 free) for Campion (47), Mickey Burke (0-1) for Hickey (59), James Conlon for Newman (60).
Referee: John Hickey (Carlow).