A ray of hope for desperate Royals

Frank Roche

WHO dares to dream of '96? Quite a few Meath fans, we suspect, who once gorged themselves on a twin diet of Kepak steaks and Seán Boylan successes.

The same supporters now hunger for an altogether simpler era when Meath football was synonymous with manliness, never giving up ... oh, and winning All-Irelands.

Today, in a strictly GAA context, Meath has become a byword for political infighting, county board chaos, recurring managerial controversy ... oh, and relegation to Division Three.

But here's an interesting poser, one that might even prompt a flicker of optimism among our famished Royal army. Are there parallels to be drawn between 1996 and 2012?

Well, one obvious difference is that Boylan won't be at the coalface this summer, despite the best attempts of Barney Allen & Co. That 'poisoned chalice' has been left in the hands of Seamus McEnaney.

But here's one similarity: Meath -- and Boylan -- entered that '96 championship under serious scrutiny in the wake of their 10-point collapse to Dublin in the previous year's Leinster final. The pressure on 'Banty' has been infinitely more pronounced, but you get the picture.

Another common theme? On Sunday week Meath face a gung-ho Wicklow, newly crowned Division Four champions, realising that any continuation of their disastrous league tailspin could result in first round Leinster humiliation.

Now rewind 16 years. Meath opened their '96 campaign against, if you'll pardon the contradiction, heavily touted Division Four opponents. Carlow, backboned by the all-conquering éire óg club and managed by the late Bobby Miller, had amassed 8-27 in their two preliminary rounds against Wexford and Wicklow. They were chasing three consecutive SFC wins for the first time since 1944 -- was it really so unthinkable?

"After '95 there was a bit of a clearout," recalls Tommy Dowd, Meath captain that year. "We could have started with five or six under-21s on the team -- lads not long out of minor. And really, believe it or not, we weren't supposed to beat Carlow.

"Even Meath people were doubtful enough about how we'd do against Carlow. You know, we weren't really sure ourselves."

What happened at Croke Park that June afternoon? Meath 0-24 Carlow 0-6. The rest is All-Ireland history -- even if it took a replay and an infamous melee with Mayo before Dowd eventually got his hands on Sam.

The attacking powerhouse recalls how himself and elder statesmen like Martin O'Connell and Colm Coyle sensed that "something could happen", especially once they skated serenely over that Carlow banana skin.

"There was a certain buzz about those young lads and they were mad eager to play football. And they were very classy players as well," he reminds, harking back to the brilliance of Trevor Giles (Footballer of the Year), Mark O'Reilly and Darren Fay that season.

The sad part for Meath circa 2012, however, is that the county's underage conveyor belt has been literally creaking for the past decade. And that's one of several reasons why even the most blinkered Páirc Tailteann diehard isn't predicting All-Ireland resurrection.

"I believe training is going well, but they are going to have to convince the supporters," says Dowd.

"They've a lot of proving to do, for themselves more than anybody else. I'm sure after the Louth game (which sealed their relegation fate) they went home with their heads hung very low, and things were at an all-time low maybe at that stage."

From his own time as a selector under Coyle, Dowd has shared a dressing-room with many of the current crop. He is convinced there is more in them.

"It's not so long ago since a good few of those lads beat Tyrone in the quarter-final of the (2007) All-Ireland," he points out.

"So, you're not in the top-five teams in the country, but you mightn't be too far behind that if they can get a few performances together. Like, they have to show how proud they are to wear the jersey."

That quality was writ large over Wicklow's thrilling league final display against Fermanagh. "They'll be absolutely mad to get a rattle at us," warns Dowd. "They'll probably feel that we're a little bit vulnerable. But at the same time, you'd still be quietly confident that we'll get over Wicklow and maybe take off."

Not that he's expecting a take-off that lands on the Hogan steps any month soon. "One thing we have to look at is underage structure," he stresses. "I think our minor team is not too bad this year ... maybe they can carry the can for a while until something comes along again. It probably won't happen over the next three or four years. It could take seven or eight years until maybe the whole thing is set up right again."

Roll on 2020!