Kerry's hardy annuals always get to the party
The music has stopped and there are two left on the dance floor. In two weeks the foxtrot will decide who wins the watch. Like the TV ad says, losers go home. And with nothing but regrets. Sounds cruel yet it is the reason which makes winning great and if losing does not hurt hard, then your heart is not really in it.
As always, the cream rises to the top. The three best teams ended up in the semi-finals. Meath tried to storm the party but are not yet in the heavyweight division. So it is back to the drawing board and, being optimistic by nature, I see the glass as half full even if structural reform in Meath is long overdue. Without it, success comes more by chance than design.
As I see it, there are two counties who plan very much for success, Tyrone and Kilkenny, while in Kerry it is just part of the cultural fibre. Planning for success is a co-ordinated approach across schools and underage levels, as well as ensuring a match programme at adult club level which may have to bend to suit the county team but ensures continuity in some types of fixtures while county players are absent.
Some counties slavishly follow the model of development squads as if they are the answer to all ills. Small numbers being brought together at a young age and kept together is a guarantee of missing all the slow developers. Fifty, sixty or a hundred should be the size of squads up to minor with the emphasis on skill development rather than winning.
This all takes money but more important than that is personnel. In Meath, there are massive untapped resources in terms of former players who are not involved simply because they are not asked. Many will not subject themselves to any type of election process but I have yet to meet a player who would not help out if asked. It is the same in every county so what is badly needed is an overall policy to get the best people in charge of every team from U14 to senior, where the same type of training is used, where a general style of football is common to all and where best practice in nutrition, exercise physiology and rest is part of an education programme.
If this sort of approach were adopted in Meath, then the county would be a force most years and All-Ireland winners on a regular basis. Because the basic ingredients for winning are in place: a big population, well-organised clubs, tradition, little competition from big rugby or soccer clubs, and a fairly fanatical support base.
The reality for these fans last Sunday was disappointment but there should be optimism too. Meath players tried hard but class is class and it was mainly on the Kerry side. In taking off the Gooch and Declan O'Sullivan, the Kerry management sent out a message long before the end that the game was over. It saved players for the final and guaranteed those who came on would fight tooth and nail to make an impression -- and that was without Kieran Donaghy making an entrance. Training in Kerry will a dangerous place over the next couple of weeks because even if 13 or 14 are automatic, there is the pecking order for subs to be sorted out.
Meath need to find at least half a dozen before next year. A tall order perhaps but there may be a few on the panel who could step up and a trawl through the clubs might throw up some more. If you look under enough rocks at the sea, you will surely find a pinkeen.
In 1986, Meath won a Leinster with a lot of rookies and then went on to have a spell at the top. In the beginning, the names of David Beggy, Liam Harnan, Terry Ferguson, Kevin Foley or Brian Stafford were not that well-known, even in the county, but before too long they made their mark. The same happened in 1996 when another team emerged so I'm confident that this is just a temporary setback on a long road.
In the case of the other beaten semi-finalist. Tyrone, the present is bleak but the future is very bright. I had expected Cork to beat Tyrone anyway but without Sean Cavanagh it was an impossible task. The present Tyrone side have given wonderful entertainment to their supporters and many have been on the road a long time.
They will be replaced too as no other county has such a network of well-organised schools but a lot of the present crew may not be back and if they are, they would be foolish. Within a short spell, Tyrone will have to find replacements for Brian Dooher, Conor Gormley, Owen Mulligan, Kevin Hughes and Brian McGuigan. Maybe better men will emerge but it will be hard replicate the type of bond that these enjoyed. A bond formed from triumph and tragedy and where the team was so much greater than the individuals.
Tyrone also changed football to an extent. Every man had to be able to play as all had to be backs, midfielders and forwards. Even if many of last year's minor team are champing at the bit to get on the senior side, there is a lot more to being a Tyrone player nowadays than just getting a jersey.
It will take many of these minors a few years to learn that and there will be a window of opportunity for others in Ulster. The natural cycle of football teams: win, lose and rebuild. The only place that the iron laws do not seem to apply is in Kerry.