Royals hit by the Blues
Meath may be shadow of the power that won the four-match epic 25 years ago but their pride surely demands a response to claims by Paddy Cullen that Dublin are unbeatable
Published 25/06/2016 | 02:30
Last Thursday week, James Horan declared that the gap between Mayo and the rest of Connacht was widening all the time and that Galway supporters would be "happy enough" to leave Castlebar on Saturday with a six to 10-point defeat.
"To me, Mayo-Galway has lost that bit of competitiveness. If Mayo perform like they can, I think they will be extremely strong - much too strong for Galway," he said.
I met Kevin O'Brien - one of Wicklow's best-ever footballers - at a function in Arklow on the following night and he expressed amazement at Horan's remarks.
He felt that apart from providing Galway with the mother of all incentives, there was a chance that the comments would feed into the wider view in Mayo of the Connacht Championship being no more than a warm-up for the All-Ireland quarter-finals.
"I doubt if Stephen Rochford would be happy reading that. As for Kevin Walsh, isn't he in a great place taking Galway to Mayo where a former manager is saying they haven't a hope? Galway will use what's been said any way they can." said O'Brien.
A day later, Galway won after outscoring Mayo by 1-5 to 0-1 in the final 20 minutes.
Last Thursday, Paddy Cullen described Dublin as 'unstoppable' and while, unlike Horan, he made no reference to the next opposition - Meath in this case - his overall assessment was unambiguous.
"A lot of people kind of kick to touch but I'll say it - there's nobody to touch Dublin at the moment," said Cullen.
Describing Jim Gavin as "a cool dude" and "a bit of an enigma", Cullen, who managed Dublin in 1991-'92, had a word of advice for the current incumbent.
"Whatever he's doing, keep doing it. They're just unbeatable."
We carried his assessment in this paper yesterday under the heading: 'Nobody can touch Dublin - they are just unstoppable - Cullen'.
An interview with Gavin appeared on the same page, where he talked of Meath 'trading off tradition'.
He was being respectful to them, implying that the proud history of Meath football is always a source of inspiration for its teams.
For a man who likes to control every detail, he would, no doubt, have much preferred if one of Dublin's great icons hadn't gone even further than Horan last week.
Horan said Mayo would be much too strong for Galway, which is a notch down from Cullen's view that Dublin are unbeatable.
Gavin talked about the Dublin-Meath rivalry still being strong, even if recent results between them don't bear that out. However, it's when he appears to characterise Meath's season so far as some sort of success, the reins need tugging.
"They had a good (pre-season), they obviously prepared well for it. They beat Longford in the O'Byrne Cup final, they started the National League very well by beating Armagh and a lot of the games they played in Division 2, they were very much in the game in the second half - they let the leads slip. But they were very dominant in those games," he said.
An O'Byrne Cup final win in January over Longford, who later finished mid-table in Division 3 and who lost to Offaly by eight points in the first round of the Leinster Championship, scarcely makes a powerful case for Meath.
Neither does a win over Armagh, who were relegated from Division 2, lost heavily to Cavan in Ulster and who would have been tossed out of the qualifiers in the first round if Laois counted their subs correctly.
Gavin is correct about Meath's second-half slumps undermining lots of good work but then there's nothing new there.
They did, after all, surrender a nine-point lead in the second half of last year's Leinster semi-final against Westmeath, eventually losing by four points.
In fairness, talking up the opposition is the norm for managers, even if Meath will ignore Gavin's generous depiction of their current status.
They are far more likely to reflect on Cullen's view that Dublin are 'unstoppable'.
Seán Boylan, who accompanied Cullen on a nostalgic return to Croke Park to mark the 25th anniversary of the 1991 Dublin-Meath four-game saga, had a different view, one which he inculcated into every Meath squad he managed. "Do I think Dublin are beatable? Of course. Every team is beatable," he said.
Boylan's loyalty to Meath would never allow him to state it publicly but he must be dismayed by the extent of the Royal decline. So long renowned for their unbreakable defiance, the opposite now applies.
Gavin's reference to Meath's second-half fade-outs is supported by damning statistics, which border on the embarrassing.
Inevitably, that raises the question of whether the current generation of Meath players possess the right mentality. Do they head for the escape chute when the going gets really tough, a failing that older Royals would find utterly repugnant to their constitution.
Even in times when Meath didn't have particularly strong teams, there was always a grit there that made them difficult to beat.
And when Meath had very talented teams, as in two periods during the Boylan era, it was also backed by a ferocious spirit that took them safely through many war zones.
The famous victory in the fourth game of the 1991 epic with Dublin tops that list, complete with its powerful final-quarter comeback.
Who would have thought that 25 years later the bookies would price Meath at even money to lose to Dublin by 12 points? Certainly not Boylan, or the Meath squad, who thought they a bequeathed a lasting legacy.
In his autobiography, 'Out of Our Skins', Liam Hayes described 1991 win as the 'ultimate victory', one that defined a new Meath.
"We knew what it was like to beat Dublin. We hate losing to them. We hate them. We believe they dislike us too and we honestly believe they're not good enough to beat us."
He was convinced that the days of losing to Dublin 'almost dutifully' were over. "That subservience has now been erased, I think, although we may still need to pray that is has gone forever," he wrote.
Presumably, they didn't pray hard enough and over recent years, Dublin have enjoyed a degree of dominance which nobody would have countenanced.
At 1/50 to win tomorrow, there's no expectation of a change, even if Cullen's portrayal of Dublin as 'unbeatable' should be enough to electrify Meath.
But then it all comes back to this: does the current Meath generation have the inner fortitude to compensate for the talent differential between themselves and Dublin?
While it might not be enough to always win the game, it can certainly narrow the divide.
Colm O'Rourke, in his autobiography, touched on what it meant to him to play for Meath, especially against Dublin, in a 20-year career where the balance of power alternated between the counties.
"Every one of those games was a real test of human character, during which the best and most base elements of a man were exposed.
"Every game produced heroes and some produced a villain or two, but they became the yardstick by which to judge any player who pulled on a green and gold shirt and wanted to call himself a footballer," he wrote.
His words are more applicable than ever now as Meath prepare to take on the 'unbeatable' Dubs.