'The GAA hung the players out to dry in 2010'
Controversial final and its after-effects are still being felt in Louth and Meath
Everybody remembers where they were when the chaos began. As Joe Sheridan flung his body, and the ball, over the Louth goal-line and referee Martin Sludden signalled for the green flag to give Meath the most dramatic of victories, you knew you were watching something that would go down in the annals of the GAA.
No moment defines a rivalry more than those injury-time scenes from the 2010 Leinster football final. As neighbours, Meath and Louth have a storied past but all previous history was erased that afternoon as the Wee County were cruelly denied their day in the sun, with their first provincial title in 50 years slipping away at the death.
After kicking four points and helping Peter Fitzpatrick's side put one hand firmly on the Delaney Cup, midfielder Brian White should be etched in everyone's mind, but fate intervened. "I couldn't really see exactly what had happened but I knew by the reaction that something was definitely wrong. Everybody just lost their heads after that and couldn't believe what was happening," White says.
"It was just pure madness. Some of us sat on the pitch for a while, we were just numb, we didn't know what to do. When we got into the dressing room, no one could really speak to each other. And now everywhere I go and every team I train with, once they hear I'm from Louth they'll always go, 'Were you involved? You must've been sick that day'. The first thing they always mention is 2010."
For Nigel Crawford, Meath's captain, the emotions were the polar opposite. After letting an 0-8 to 0-5 half-time lead slip they had engineered one of the most controversial smash-and-grabs in sporting history. With all the euphoria Eamonn O'Brien's charges could hardly have cared less whether the win was achieved by fair or foul means.
"The goal went in and everyone in the ground was stunned because nobody really knew what happened," Crawford says. "Louth looked certain winners but it was blown up within a minute of the goal. We were oblivious to most of the controversy because I don't think anyone knew or really particularly cared how the goal went in. It just went in and we won."
Extensive coverage on The Sunday Game allowed the wider public to agree with White's consensus - "that's not right, they can't win it like that" - and there was a massive uproar calling for a replay. But as the hours and days ticked by it was clear that there would be no second bite at the cherry for Louth.
A similar issue arose last Saturday following Meath's Christy Ring Cup 'win', their first silverware at HQ in any code since 2010, with All-Ireland winner Crawford outlining how they would have followed instructions from the GAA authorities at the time if given. But when no decision was forthcoming, he believes it was an "absolute nonsense" that the pressure came on the players to offer a solution.
"If the GAA had said, 'No, you're not playing the All-Ireland quarter-final, you have to play a replay'. Of course we would have played it," he says. "It's an absolute nonsense in an organisation as big and as professional as the GAA that because of one game and moral pressure, the players could dictate that there would be a replay.
"If the GAA came out that Sunday night and just released a statement drawing a line in the sand saying that's what it is then everyone would've just moved on and that would've been it, but instead they let it lie there. The Meath players got a lot of abuse over not offering the replay and we were being told that we weren't sporting.
"Nobody ever said it was going to be fair or just all the time, these mistakes happen and there's winners and losers from them but I'm pretty sure if it was the other way around and if was Louth who had got the goal against Meath, there would have been no clamour for a replay or any discussion on that.
"Why, all of a sudden, would the players be allowed to dictate the fixture schedule in the GAA? I don't think any player would ever want to do that or have that power and I don't think the GAA would. I thought in a way the GAA abdicated their responsibility and hung the players out to dry."
White feels "a replay probably would've been wrong" and that both parties were stuck in a "no-win situation". While it might not be visible in the record books, an asterisk will always appear beside the 2010 final with Meath legend Trevor Giles remarking: "It won't do Meath any favours because there will always be a question mark over the result."
Both Crawford and White are now retired from inter-county duty but they'll be interested spectators in Parnell Park today as their counties meet for the first time in the Leinster Championship since that infamous July day six years ago. Amazingly, just five of the 36 who featured in that contest will be on show with Graham Reilly the only survivor on the Royals' side.
Reilly played in the looping ball which Sheridan subsequently broke Louth hearts with and while Sludden took the brunt of the criticism for his error, many took time to pen letters and texts to Sheridan with the Seneschalstown attacker revealing how the hate mail brought his mother to tears.
"I remember she got a letter in the post one day and started crying," Sheridan says. "It was pretty dire stuff for people to write down. To actually think that someone could sit down and write that kind of stuff on a letter and send it across anonymously as well. Emotions bring the worst out in people sometimes but lucky enough nothing bad came of it."
There's certainly no love lost between the counties but the men patrolling the sidelines may share a smile at some stage. By chance Meath boss Mick O'Dowd and his Louth counterpart Colin Kelly ended up sitting beside each other for the duration of the 2010 game with neither expecting a scenario to arise where they would be pitting their wits against one another today.
Both are leading their counties through challenging times and it doesn't get any easier after today for the winners, with Dublin the reward in the semi-finals. Meath were the last team to conquer Dublin in Leinster en route to that disputed provincial crown.
Meath have blown up at various stages in recent seasons, most famously during a disastrous second-half collapse against Westmeath last year, and Crawford traces the Meath slide back to the departure of Seán Boylan, who stepped down in 2005 after 23 years and four All-Ireland titles.
As Manchester United have discovered, it is difficult to replace an iconic figure and adapting to his absence has been demanding. "Seán looked after everything. He brought Meath so far ahead of everyone and brought great success, a lot of that was purely down to one man," he says. "When he retired the necessary structures or replacements were not there to pick up from where he had left off, he had done so much that I don't think one person was ever going to be able to do what he had done. And I think something similar happened in United where Ferguson was the dominant figure in charge of absolutely every aspect of what went on at the club.
"It's only then when you lose that brilliant figurehead, that you realise it's going to be very hard to replace them. I don't think that's a criticism of anyone in Meath, it was always going to be really difficult because Seán is a once-in-a-generation man to come along and lead a county."
He feels there has been a "recognition of underage issues" which has hindered development at senior level but admits it will "take some time" to reap rewards while White bemoans the effects of missing out on a senior crown, which could have skyrocketed enthusiasm, and highlights inadequacies in their long-term vision.
"If we had've won that and maybe had a good year the following year I'm sure it would really have boosted the quality and interest in Louth. Imagine the amount of interest in the Louth set-up and wanting to pull on the red jersey. It just didn't turn out that way and it's gone downhill a wee bit since. I could be here all day talking about football in Louth and what's wrong," he says.
Despite losing many high-profile players for a small county, like their only All-Star Paddy Keenan, he lauds the efforts of Kelly and how he has helped "breathe new life and positivity" into the county but he acknowledges that "Meath have a hoodoo over Louth" despite new faces like Ryan Burns and Jim McEneaney coming on the scene.
The folly of the structures means that Meath could be out of the championship within six days of starting it, should they lose today and to Derry next Saturday.
Either way, a new chapter will be etched in this neighbourly conflict, but it's hard to imagine that any chapter could have the same drama as that contentious summer's day in 2010.
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