Galway have the stomach to digest Meath
SO much money has flooded onto Meath to win their eighth All-Ireland senior football title tomorrow that it's virtually impossible to believe that this is essentially the same side which took to the championship road last June shackled by uncertainty.
A first round exit against Offaly last year, followed by a whole series of inert performances in the National League which ended in relegation, left even the world's greatest optimist, Sean Boylan, publicly admitting his concern.
A defeat by Limerick in a challenge game shortly before the Leinster championship game against Westmeath would not, in ordinary circumstances, have registered very highly on Meath's relevance scale, but this was different.
"We were very quiet boys coming back from Limerick that evening. We couldn't seem to do anything right," recalls Boylan.
"I was genuinely worried about the Westmeath game. To be honest, it was a question of hoping that with hard work, things would correct themselves because we had no decent form to go on," he said.
Meath survived, but only just. A one point win, achieved with the trademark late burst, re-established contact with their confidence and Meath were on their way. Five games later, they are odds-on favourites to add Galway to a casualty cast which already features Westmeath (twice), Kildare, Dublin and Kerry.
While Meath were just managing to scale Westmeath's first fence at Croke Park, the Galway players were sitting in the Tuam Stadium dressing-rooms thanking God that the new championship format was in operation.
They had been totally over-powered by Roscommon and were left with so many questions that nobody quite knew where to start.
"We let the lads back to the clubs for ten days and everybody took stock of where we had come from, where we were, and which direction we were headed," said John O'Mahony.
"It was a time for everybody to be honest with themselves because we had been well beaten by Roscommon."
@@STYL sk,0 Five games later, Galway are back in their third All-Ireland final in four seasons. Having beaten Wicklow, Armagh, Cork, Roscommon and Derry, they are now within one victory of creating history by becoming the first county to win the All-Ireland football title, having lost a provincial game.
It's a truly fascinating prospect. Meath, who won more All-Ireland titles than any other county over the last 15 years, against Galway who, after 32 years in the desert, have re-established themselves as a mighty force over the past four seasons.
Historically, Galway hold a distinct advantage in league and championship clashes with Meath, including a six-point win in their last All-Ireland final clash in 1966.
The exploits of Johnny Geraghty, Enda Colleran, Mattie McDonagh, Pat Donnellan and Co all of 35 years ago should be totally irrelevant, but it has been played up in Galway all week in the battle for the psychological high ground.
It's just one of the many mysterious elements which comprise an All-Ireland final build-up and while it should have no bearing on what happens tomorrow, tradition can have a strange impact on games.
"There is no logical link between performance and tradition, yet it seems to play a significant role in Gaelic Games," says Dr Aidan Moran, Professor of Psychology at UCD.
"In a way, I suppose, it's a mixture of confidence or lack of it and superstition coming together to produce an attitude of mind. It's a strange phenomenon but it seems to happen," he added.
Tradition apart, this final is likely to be one of the most intensely fought tactical battles ever waged between two managers.
Boylan and O'Mahony are proven planning experts, not in a complicated, theoretical manner, but in plain, practical realities, so it will be intriguing to see what strategies they devise in an effort to counteract each other's strong points.
Boylan needs to sort out an anti-Michael Donnellan interceptor plan, one which will stop him driving at the Meath defence, a ploy which Westmeath discovered to be surprisingly fruitful in the first half of the All-Ireland quarter-final, during which they scored 3-7.
Donnellan is to Galway what Roy Keane is to Manchester United, combining skill, energy and vision with a fierce competitive instinct.
Boylan will also have to respond to Tommy Joyce's wander lust. Will Meath send a marker after Joyce as he embarks on his Croke Park safari or will they hold three across the full-back line, while instructing others to mark on a zonal basis further afield?
My hunch is that they will opt for the latter because Galway would be delighted to leave two on two in front of the Meath goal and spray angled passes into such a tricky pair as Derek Savage and Padraic Joyce.
O'Mahony's main concern will be to cut off the supply lines to the Meath full-forward line where, between them, Ollie Murphy and Graham Geraghty have accounted for 6-23 (38 per cent) of the 11-75 scored in the six games so far.
With the deadly duo notching almost four of every ten scores landed by Meath, it's imperative for Galway to crowd the approach roads, a task which will essentially fall to Tommy Joyce and the midfielders, although Paul Clancy and Joe Bergin will be expected to track back too.
Meath have scored 11 goals in six championship games which is far superior to Galway's return. Galway bagged three each against Leitrim and Wicklow but, with respect to either defence, they are not of All-Ireland standard.
Galway's goal return from their five games against Ros common (twice), Armagh, Cork and Derry is a modest two so, if they are to win tomorrow, it's most likely to be via the point route.
In itself, that's not a major issue Kerry won the 1997 and 2000 All-Ireland finals solely on points but it would greatly enhance Galway's chances if they could improve their goal-rate.
Meath's demolition of Kerry remains the season's great wild card. Was it a freakish one-off or clear proof that they have climbed to a higher plain than their pursuers?
Frankly, nobody knows, although the anaemic nature of Kerry's resistance hints at most unusual circumstances, which are unlikely to be repeated.
Galway will have far more stomach for battle and, as they proved against Derry, will not be intimidated if they fall behind. Neither indeed will Meath, the great masters in the successful recovery trade.
The Galway hurlers went into the All-Ireland final as favourites to beat Tipperary on the basis of their outstanding semi-final win over Kilkenny. Meath now find themselves in the same position, having been hoisted even closer to the 'certainty' bay by the 15 point victory over Kerry.
Meath have impressive credentials but then so have Galway who, after the Roscommon setback, re-focused themselves with serious intent.
They can harvest the fruitful yield from a second cut at the championship by winning their ninth All-Ireland title tomorrow.