There's been little joy for Louth or Meath since the rancorous 2010 Leinster final, writes Dermot Crowe
TWO years on from their most infamous union, Meath and Louth converge in a down-at-heel Division 2 relegation tie at Navan.
The journey for neither has been paved with gold and while the enmity has waned, there are some residual reminders of the unholy chapter and its wider implications. A month ago, two Louth supporters were convicted in court of attacking Martin Sludden, the central figure in the controversy. The news reports carried that familiar footage of Sludden trying to make his way off the pitch surrounded by fuming followers in red.
No party to the episode managed to escape unscathed but Sludden has resurrected his career, was in the championship panel of referees last year, and is on duty today at the Westmeath v Derry game in Mullingar in the same division. Ironically, that game is not an irrelevance to proceedings in Navan and could have a bearing on the fortunes of Meath and Louth.
But fate is in their own hands as both go in search of the win that will secure Division 2 status; there is plenty at stake aside from the issues of honour and settling scores. Meath have had the upper hand since 2010. Last year the counties were, as seemed destined to happen, drawn to meet in the first round of the qualifiers after both made early exits in Leinster. While Joe Sheridan was the centre of attention he eventually had to concede to Cian Ward, scorer of four of Meath's five goals in a comfortable win.
Since that infamous Leinster final neither county has kicked on or fulfilled their promise. Meath have ditched their management team, gone outside the county in a break from tradition, and already that group is under pressure, having seen two selectors walk out before last year's championship. On the field, after a bright start to the league, their form has slumped with four straight defeats. Internally there is more conflict with the godfather of Meath football Seán Boylan vacating his role as director of football clearly unhappy with the way the project was panning out.
Louth have played Meath in two other matches in the period since the 2010 Leinster final, in this year's O'Byrne Cup and in a tournament game last year, and lost both. Meetings between the counties have been relatively scarce over the last 20 years in league and championship and Louth's last win in the league was in November 1989 at Navan, also in Division 2, a major surprise at the time.
Louth came into the match on the back of two defeats to Antrim and Wexford, while Meath had won their opening two. After Louth lost the second-round tie to Wexford the local radio station LMFM, then in its infancy, wondered mischievously ahead of the Meath match if their star forward Colin Kelly might be better off playing for the Royals. The Louth manager, Frank Lynch, was incensed but kept his powder dry until after the match.
Louth were fired up and took the Royals scalp 0-10 to 0-9, shooting 20 wides into the bargain to five from Meath. Peter Fitzpatrick played in the middle of the field. When a representative of the LMFM went to get some post-match reaction, Lynch, in the words of one witness, "threw him out of the dressing room".
Liam Harnan, who played centre-back for Meath that day, withdrew from the senior management heading into last year's championship along with fellow selector Barry Callaghan. He had previously stepped down as county under 16 manager, citing a lack of support from the minor board. One of his reasons for severing ties with Seamus McEnaney was frustration over his lack of input.
Harnan was initially considered a candidate to succeed the deposed Eamonn O'Brien, manager when Meath won the controversial 2010 Leinster final, and his decision to make way for McEnaney and then join him as a selector was seen as crucial in securing support for an outsider. Harnan has managed the under 21s for the last two years and seen at first hand the poverty of Meath's performances at underage level. Louth went farther at under 21 level this year, Meath were out at the first hurdle to Offaly in February. They made an equally swift exit last year.
Harnan will not be in Navan today although he continues to attend club matches, and county games at all other grades except senior. "I haven't been to a Meath (senior) match since the last game of the league last year. I don't go to Meath games," he says. "I just wouldn't be comfortable going to them. I don't like what I see. I don't like the set-up so I don't go. I go to club games. I am not ashamed, I am not hiding from people. I just don't have an interest in seeing what is happening at senior level."
After leaving the senior management and the under 16s, he outlined the reasons to the county board executive. He also wrote letters so that his views would be put on the record. "I found it very frustrating and I would feel that there are a lot of people who would genuinely like to get involved with football in Meath but it just seems to be hard to get anything done."
Meath were steamrolled by Kildare in the All- Ireland quarter-finals in 2010 after dispatching Louth, while Fitzpatrick's team drew Dublin and were unable to handle the challenge. Meath's form, after a bright start to this year's league, has nosedived and sees a campaign that began as a promotion race end in a bid for survival.
Harnan is still interested in working with Meath teams. "End of the day it is my county, I played for the county, I live in the county, I will always be a Meath man. We had a forum about two years ago where there was a lot of talking done. Ned Quinn came from Kilkenny and someone from Club Tyrone and Michael Dempsey spoke; it was a meeting for people with a genuine interest in Meath football. I don't know what has happened since then. Or, whether it is a matter of saying one thing and doing another -- or doing nothing."
The odd events surrounding Boylan's departure as director of football hardly help to adjust the dampened mood of expectation in the county -- he confirmed it at an event on Monday last but the chairman of the county board, Barney Allen, later denied any knowledge of his decision. Allen did not return calls last week. While Boylan is believed to have had some meetings as part of the new role, there clearly was a lot less to the job than he anticipated.
"I think the county board is not good and our county executive has some very hard questions it needs to start asking itself," states Harnan. "And I think there are a certain number of people on the executive who are not pulling their weight. They certainly don't seem united, there seems to be a lot of bitching going on, there are personalities involved and it just doesn't seem to be good.
"Someone has to steer the ship whether at adult level or underage level and I would say that the chairman and his executive, I think they are coming up short. They mightn't like me saying it but they lack a bit of foresight and cohesion in there. They seem more sparky than constructive."
Louth's graph since the 2010 final has been equally unprepossessing. They bombed after gaining promotion from Division 3 last year, where they had plenty of good fortune. After a good start with wins over Westmeath and Wexford, the latter on the day their manager was elected to the Dáil, their form took a turn south.
On the final day of the league they struggled to beat Waterford in Dungarvan and for a while it looked like they could end up being relegated to Division 4, such was the cluster of teams separated by no more than a few points. After Paddy Keenan carried them over the line they had to wait on other results to learn their fate. They were going up but their form was not.
In the championship they lost to Carlow for the first time ever and a dream draw that avoided all the major powers was passed over. Even the prospect of Meath in the qualifiers failed to rouse them. Their defence was ripped open, and up front Darren Clarke was their sole scorer from play. They go back to Navan in the summer to face Westmeath in the first round and if they win that they have a glamour match against the All-Ireland champions Dublin in the quarter-final.
Both teams have been hit by emigration since the 2010 final. The 'villain' of the piece, Joe Sheridan, is now in Boston, having left after the league game against Galway. Leaving Ireland in its present economic state is hardly a headline-maker but Sheridan had trained hard over the winter and his departure came as a surprise. He was not getting starts and theories circulate of him not being happy with his game-time. If he was enjoying his football people find it hard to see how he would leave at this time.
Louth lost Brian White, John O'Brien and Mick Fanning after the 2010 final to emigration. O'Brien returned and played a part in last year's qualifier against Meath before going off injured. White and Fanning are part of the squad at the moment but haven't regained regular starting places. All three were key figures in 2010.
Wrangling with the county board isn't unique to Meath. Louth players went on Twitter during the past week to outline their anger over a serious delay in being paid expenses. While their case appears genuine and deserving of attention, highlighting it in this way hardly constitutes ideal preparation for such an important league game against Meath. Having a row about expenses in the days leading up to a trip to Navan can't be good for the soul.
It shows how quickly the joy of reaching a first Leinster final in 50 years has been replaced by poor performances, internal feuding and parties pulling in different directions. Meath are favourites to win today but they can't be said to be coping much better. On and off the field, they have been unstable. Meath could survive even if they lose today's match but that will be a hollow prize in the circumstances. Whatever about the counties' respective conditions, you can't say the backdrop to the match isn't interesting.