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INTERVIEW | Meath's Barry Dardis discusses the Royals' promotion to Division 1

David Smith speaks to Meath forward Barry Dardis to discuss the forthcoming Division 2 final against Donegal in Croke Park, the Royals' promotion to Division 1, and that crucial penalty against Kildare in Navan...

Meath will dine at the top table next year.

The Royals beat Fermanagh on Sunday to secure promotion to Division 1 for the first time since 2006.

Meath finished top of the pile in a competitive Division 2, winning six of their seven league matches on the road to promotion, and will now face Donegal in the league final on Sunday.

A narrow defeat to the Ulster county in Ballybofey was the only blip in an otherwise excellent league campaign, but it could all have been very different.

In their antepenultimate league match, Meath were trailing promotion rivals Kildare by two points in stoppage time in horrendous conditions in Navan.

Meath - losing 1-08 to 0-09 - were awarded a stoppage time penalty against the Lilywhites.

"It might go down as one of the most important scores in Meath GAA history!" the Meath GAA Twitter page would later exclaim.

Barry Dardis placed the ball on the spot in the 71st minute, knowing a victory could put his county in the driving seat for the rest of the league campaign, and a defeat could derail their promotion bid.

No pressure then.

Luckily for Meath, The Summerhill man kept his composure and found the back of the net to send the home fans into raptures.

Looks like the keeper gets a hand to the last minute winning penalty for Meath by Barry Dardis - struck it brilliantly all the same, what a way to comeback and win. #GAA — Tommy Rooney (@TomasORuanaidh) March 3, 2019

The home side won 1-09 to 1-08 as a result, and subsequent wins over Clare and Fermanagh saw them end the league at the summit of a very competitive division."

"Once it was given I knew that since Mickey Newman had gone off - and I was taking frees - it was going to be up to me to take it," Barry says of the crucial penalty.

"Often in those situations you might get one of the lads putting themselves up to take it but on that occasion everyone seemed happy for me to take it."

It was a pressure kick in challenging conditions, so what was running through his mind?

"Being a free taker comes with extra responsibility so you get used to having to take pressure shots, and to blanking out any thoughts, and just go through the process I normally take, no matter if it's in the first or last minute of the game," he continued.

"It was such a miserable wet day that I was just saying to myself that I need to put power into it because even if the keeper gets to it there is a strong chance it will still go in, as it will be impossible for him to hold on to it, and secondly not to drive it over the bar. "

It has largely been a case of "so near and yet so far" for the Leinster county in recent seasons.

Agonizing one-point narrow victories to Donegal and Tyrone in the qualifiers have cut short any momentum in the Championship, and the Royals have also come close to promotion under both Mick O'Dowd and Andy McEntee.

Barry says this year's promotion is the culmination of several years of work coming to fruition.

"One of the main aims of the year was to get to Division 1, and it was nice to see the hard work over the winter pay off, but it's been in motion for a couple years now and it's nice to finally get the due rewards."

"Division 1 is where the All-Ireland's are won and we want to be competing against them as often as we can as that will only improve us further, as the last number of years we have been getting close to these teams in championship but just missing out to them.

He shoots, he scores. Barry Dardis wasn’t going to miss once he got a sniff of goal. That first half goal proved vital yesterday as he came up with a crucial score again. #AnMhíAbú #MeathGAA Pics Brian Mulligan/Meath GAA — Meath GAA (@MeathGAA) March 25, 2019

"You train for the big days against the best teams to test yourself against them, so being able to do that next year on several occasions before Championship is a bonus compared to the last number of years playing in Division 2.

"You grow up wanting to become the best footballer you can be and playing in Division 1 will enhance this further."

Before attention turns to the Championship, there's the matter of a Division 2 final against Donegal to contest.

The Ulster county finished second behind Meath in the league standings after thumping Kildare on Sunday afternoon.

Meath will be out for revenge after suffering a late sucker punch in the league meeting in Ballybofey.

A fortuitous Caolan McGonagle goal in the dying minutes sealed a 1-13 to 0-14 winfor the home side, who snatched victory in the fifth minute of stoppage time through points from Eoin McHugh and Jamie Brennan.

Dardis - who also scored a goal at a crucial time against Fermanagh on Sunday - played no part in that match against Donegal, but is looking forward to potentially playing in Croker for the first time as a senior county player.

"I've never played in Croke Park as a senior. I played several times as a (Meath) minor but took that for granted at such a young age, so I'm looking forward to getting back in their and expressing ourselves."

The Meath forward says Donegal are playing a more attractive brand of football under Declan Bonner, and is expecting a tough game against the Ulster champions.

"Donegal are a big physical team and in essence a 'top eight team' in the country, so we will really know where we stand after that game in terms of the improvements we have made this year," Barry stated.

"Since Declan Bonner has come in last year, they have openly spoken about wanting to play more expansive and attacking football, and it can be seen by some of the scores they have been putting up in the last 18 months compared to the time previous to that, where they had this ultra defensive mantra.

"So we expecting them to play fast flowing footballing and trying to put as many long balls into their quick and powerful forwards as possible."

Manager Andy McEntee outlined two main goals for the year before a ball was kicked; to win promotion to Division 1, and to make the 'Super 8s'.

The 2-12 to 0-11 win over Fermanagh has ensured that one of those targets has already been met.

Before McEntee replaced O'Dowd as Meath manager, the Dunboyne native is perhaps best known for guiding Ballyboden St Enda's to the All-Ireland club title.

He has deservedly earned a reputation as an excellent manager, but what is he like to play for?

"He's a manager that tells it as it is, he is honest with everyone and won't beat around the bush when speaking to you," Barry reveals.

"If he's not happy with you, he will tell you, but likewise, if you are playing well he will also let you know, which is something I enjoy in managers as often times they can be hard to impress, but when you do impress them, it can give you a huge sense of satisfaction."

Regardless of the outcome of Saturday's final, the general feeling is that Meath are in a good place.

The Royals have a season in Division One to look forward to next year, and find themselves on the more favourable side of the Leinster final draw.

According to Dardis - who has also lined out in goals for the county this season - the Meath players are enjoying their gootball, and morale in the camp is high.

"Like any team, when you get on a run of winning games everything is enjoyable, and lads are coming to training with an extra spring in their step.

"Lads are doing extra sessions to get on to the panel and there is a feel good vibe around the squad, which can only be beneficial for us as we approach Championship.

"Winning games gives us a winning mentality and confidence knowing we are going in the right direction."

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