Hard days night as Meath put to the sword in Leinster SFC final
ANALYSIS No explanation for crushing 21-point defeat
For a while it didn't look like Andy McEntee had the stomach to face the gathered hoard of bated press.
Coaxed by Co Board chairman John Kavanagh from the sanctuary of a downbeat dressing room to speak to RTE pitchside, the Meath manager cut a forlorn figure under the glare of the TV lights and when he was finished with the national broadcaster he kept the head down and marched back to his players as Croke Park officials tried to usher him to his right and up the steps of the Hogan stand.
It wasn't how McEntee envisaged climbing the Hogan, his dream was that at the end of his walk would be the Delaney Cup, instead he headed for the hills.
Eventually and unsurprisingly McEntee made his way back out, passed the plinth where the Leinster trophy had sat and for a little over four minutes, that must have felt like hours, he tried to explain away Meath's heaviest defeat in championship history.
The manager summed it up in his opening words to the media.
"I'm very disappointed. We didn't perform and got badly punished," stating the obvious.
Hope had been so high ahead of last Saturday night's Leinster SFC final. Much had been written and spoken about the improvements Meath have made over the last 12 months. No one envisaged a repeat of the 1-17 to 0-4 drubbing suffered at the hands of the All-Ireland champions in the 2019 final - no one except Dublin maybe!
Yet fast forward 17 months and Dublin bettered that margin of victory by a further five points. For Meath there wasn't even the solace of a decent defensive first-half to reflect on - the game turned as early as the ninth minute and was out of sight by the 23rd.
"We never got into it and we got punished every time we made an error. We just weren't up to the pitch of the game, that's plain and simple," reflected the Meath manager.
For 65 or 66 minutes Meath's exercise switched from one of hope to damage limitation. A far cry from the expectations of being still in the game heading into the final quarter and then throwing the kitchen sink at the champs in an effort to try and topple them.
There were chances. After just a minute a beautiful pivot by Cillian O'Sullivan set him through on goals, but he was quickly smothered by Dublin. The ball fell to Bryan McMahon but he too was quickly crowded out and forced to lay off to Bryan Menton who tipped over a point.
An encouraging start from Meath, but even in that opening minute it was clear that Dublin's intensity, hunger and desire was set to beast mode, Meath were essentially hens in front of a hungry fox.
Dublin's scores came easily, but Meath stayed in touch early on, showing creditable courage to hang in there and after seven minutes they were still level, 0-2 each, but then Dublin turned on the swagger.
The mercurial Brian Fenton, who has never lost a championship game in the sky blue, claimed a kickout, linked up with Niall Scully for a one-two before offloading to Dean Rock who sent the green flag flying from its resting place on the net with a low drive that gave Mark Brennan no chance.
Seven minutes later an outstanding move created a second goal for Meath - albeit a half chance. Matt Costello and Shane McEntee were both involved before Jordan Morris picked out Menton, but he was quickly closed down and his attempt to rescue a point from the move was screwed wide.
Meath might reflect that if it had been Menton who delivered the final pass to Morris the net might have danced, but if is a tiny word on which huge dreams die.
Within seven minutes another quick, lightning quick, Dublin counter-attack left Meath choking on their fumes as Sean Bugler scythed through the heart of the Royal rearguard with the ease of a bull rampaging through a china shop where he linked up with Robbie McDaid before firing his side's second goal - game, set, match, humiliation.
Had those earlier goal chances been taken by Meath, things might have been different, but the manager wasn't so sure.
"I think it might be a bit naïve to say that those early goal chances might have made a difference, but yes we did have a couple of chances early on and we didn't take them and we knew that if we did create chances we had to take them," lamented McEntee.
"Maybe missing those chances did knock us back a bit, but Dublin had started the game at a good pace too, so we are clutching at straws if we are to think those two goal chances might have made a difference.
"If we had taken the chances it might have given us a little bit of confidence, but that is hard to know.
"We were chasing the game from a very early stage and we just weren't able to compete at that level, on the day, for whatever reason.
"You have to give credit to Dublin, they are what they are. They totally outplayed us in every facet of the game and that's the bottom line," said the manager.
After a year that promised so much, but ultimately delivered so little McEntee admitted that his side hadn't improved on last year's Leinster final display and he had warned his players that a sub-par performance might result in such an outcome.
So where did it all go wrong? Are Dublin simply just that good?
"I can't pinpoint why we didn't perform to the level I had wanted. There were a lot of things that we would have liked to have done, but we didn't execute what we had planned, I can't put my finger on it right now," said a baffled McEntee.
"No there was no improvement (on last year's final loss). We spoke last week that if we put in another first-half performance like we did against Kildare then we would be punished and the game would be out of sight, ultimately that's what happened.
"It is hard for every team (playing against Dublin), but we just have to keep going at it. Dublin do what Dublin do and they have a very good system in place.
"They bring in new players and it doesn't seem to disrupt them. Yes it is difficult, but that is the challenge that lies ahead of every other team in Leinster.
"Whether they are better or worse than they were before isn't relevant right now, the result is the result tonight and everybody is disappointed with that.
"That's hard to judge (if that's as good as he had seen Dublin play) because our level of performance wasn't what I expected from us, so that is hard to judge just how good Dublin were."
Picking some positives from the carcass of such a devastating defeat is next to impossible, but once again the Meath players dug deep and never gave up. The players sprung from the bench didn't let the side down, but McEntee didn't expect anything less from his players.
"I didn't expect the lads to give up and they kept trying for the whole game. We did get an improvement near the end, but you have to question were Dublin's levels of intensity at that stage the same as they were at the start? Probably not," concluded the Meath manager before despondently returning to a deafening silent dressing room as the lights went out on a 10th successive Leinster campaign with nothing to show.