Royals can keep it tight but class will prevail in the end
Last week I had a private audience with the greatest living Meath man, Mattie Gilsenan, who captained the Meath team in their first All-Ireland final against Kerry in 1939.
The private audience consisted of calling in for a cup of tea with him and his wife Eileen. I was lucky to catch him in, he is usually off herding cattle. Now though a bad hip has slowed him down a bit but at 94 very young years most people are taking it a little easier anyway.
Seventy years after that first championship meeting when Meath won the toss for colours and wore traditional green and gold while Kerry borrowed the Dingle jerseys, red with a white stripe, the old rivals cross swords again. I was not at the game myself in 1939 but Kerry got a dodgy goal and won by two points. Kerry have benefited with similar dodgy goals in winning about 25 other All Irelands since!
Anyway, Mattie can recall every incident in that game and every other one since too, a social history of the county for 80 years being carried around in a man's head. There must be a student out there with a thesis to do who could preserve a county's cultural and sporting history and write a book on his memories?
Those who do not learn from the mistakes of history are doomed to repeat them so I hope Patrick O'Rourke in the Meath goals takes no chances today when catching high balls. Seventy years ago, Hughie McEnroe, the Meath goalie, was deemed by the umpires to have carried the ball over the line when making a save. The Sunday Game in 1939 was just as inconclusive then as it was a couple of weeks ago in the match against Mayo. This time round Meath got the benefit of the doubt. The swings and roundabouts of sport.
Today Meath farmers are more worried about fields of corn being flattened by continuous rain than most things but football is the greatest escape for the masses from bad news. A big landowner of my acquaintance sold out his property a few years ago for a kings ransom and settled in Spain to what he thought would be a life of absolute leisure and zero stress. Yet he never really settled and soon returned. He missed the games on Sunday too much and he said the one thing he could not get used to was getting up in the morning and not seeing his wellies outside the back door. So it is back to trying to cut the corn, rain, and happiness, a visit to Croke Park today and a wish to see the Royals taking over the Kingdom. You can take the man out of the bog but . . .
Meath supporters will be saying the novenas this morning that the Kerry team that shows up is the Longford, Sligo, Antrim vintage rather than the Dublin model. Because Kerry at their best are a better side than Meath but if they drop below a certain level, Meath will hound them at every turn; the spirit is back in Meath football but that only gets you out of the blocks.
Then what is needed is someone to mark Gooch and Declan O'Sullivan up front. And while Meath have lots of good backs and very good footballers, they are not the greatest man markers in the business. It would suit Meath better in many ways if the twin towers approach was adopted as Walsh and Donaghy are more manageable in some respects than the speed of the aforementioned duo backed by Paul Galvin marauding from deep, Darran O'Sullivan running around like a March hare while Tadhg Kennelly can be in two places at once.
It is asking a lot to hold onto such pedigree. Yet Cormac McGuinness has been excellent all year, Seamus Kenny has been even better but the real pressure will come on players who like to play rather than being negative: Chris O'Connor, Anthony Moyles, Caoimhin King and Eoghan Harrington. They will have to hang on to the tiger's tail and a start like the one against Mayo would see the game gone south before the crowd got warmed up.
Meath have done very well around midfield in recent games and the pairings today are not dissimilar. Darragh ó Sé and Nigel Crawford will compete in the air, while Seamus Scanlon and Brian Meade are two workers who will put in huge unseen graft for the benefit of their teams.
There is a perception that the Kerry backs are the weakest part of the team, but it is a bit simplistic to isolate sectors of teams anymore as the play is so fluid.
Yet the Meath forwards must keep Marc ó Sé and Tom O'Sullivan close to goal and send in a few missiles from the clouds because if it comes to a lot of low ball the Kerry backs will clean up. The best man under the high ball is Joe Sheridan but he often kicks in the best ball too.
The returning Stephen Bray need only play like David did against Mayo to cause havoc but Cian Ward and Brian Farrell need to win more ball inside as they could run up a lot of scores. The runner in the forwards is Peadar Byrne who will play from half-back up and five scoring forwards is plenty anyway.
The big danger for Meath is when Kerry are running from deep as the whole half-back line and indeed Tom O'Sullivan and Marc ó Sé can come up and score. A forward not tracking back will pay a high price and, as they showed against Dublin, Kerry are devastating with time and space. The disciplines of covering for others and individually marking tight are the essentials of a competitive team.
The old story about the horse and nail is still true. Summarised it goes something like this: for want of a nail the shoe was lost, for want of a shoe the horse was lost and for want of a horse the battle was lost. The moral of the story is that small things can make a big difference in love, war and, more important of all, a big match in Croke Park.
There is no doubt that Meath have not shown anything like the form Kerry displayed against Dublin and as there is a lot of respect for Meath in Kerry, there is no way that Kerry will be in any way complacent. Of course there is a fear that Meath could get a trouncing but I don't think that will arise as this present squad have demonstrated a willingness to battle.
A player wearing a Meath jersey must be a man. It demands courage, honesty and discipline. Respect but not fear. Pride but not arrogance. These players have inherited these same qualities which men like Matt Gilsenan have demonstrated for over 70 years. They will undoubtedly play with passion and yet for all that it would take a huge leap of faith to think Meath would beat Kerry. And if they do run into trouble, Kerry could unleash a few subs who would certainly start on the Meath side. In general, Kerry don't lose semi-finals. That trend is likely to continue and the Meath farmers might not get to cut the corn either.