Return of the Royals
Back in the All-Ireland quarter-final for the first time in six years, Meath are about to learn if the recovery is real. MARTIN BREHENY takes a look at why the rest of the football world will be keeping a watching brief as Colm Coyle's charges take their case to the higher courts
THEY'RE back in Croke Park in August for the first time in six years and Gaelic football is all the better for it.
The top table has been a duller place without Meath who for 15 years between 1986 and 2001 could always be relied upon to enrich the company, enliven the conversation and engage with whoever sat next to them.
They weren't averse to tossing out the occasional insult either but, like their football, there was never a gratuitous nastiness to it. They spoke their minds, took their criticisms and didn't care what anybody thought.
And if they did step out of line, Seán Boylan had the soothing skills of a United Nations diplomat as he set about convincing the world that Meath were actually the victims of a wicked plot to discredit them.
Boylan was the master of diversion tactics. Once, after a particularly frothy championship clash with Dublin, he was asked for his views on the more unsavoury aspects of the game.
He paused for a second before replying with the straightest of faces.
"The wind was fierce awkward out there."
The wind, Seán?
"Yea, it was swirling all over the place. Made it very tough for lads. They'd be just about to catch the ball when it changed course. It made passing and shooting very hard too. That's very frustrating. To be honest, I thought lads on both sides took and gave knocks but it was all done in the right spirit."
In a brilliant example of verbal sorcery, he had somehow transferred the blame for the fractious affair onto the wind which by then was somewhere out over the Irish Sea and unavailable for comment.
It was the sort of trick Boylan would pull many times.
Boylan's breakthrough team of the mid-eighties thrived on the bad boy image. It was as if they wanted the rest of the country to dislike them so that they could use it as a unifying force.
A week after 14-man Meath (Gerry McEntee had been sent off early on) had beaten Cork by a point in the 1988 All-Ireland final replay, two of the more influential figures penned pieces which two-fingered those who criticised the tactics deployed.
'No Regrets' was the heading over Liam Hayes's article in The Sunday Press which bluntly told Cork to take their beating and stop whining. "You had your chance with an extra-man last Sunday, you didn't take it, get over it," was the theme of Hayes's offering.
In The Sunday Tribune, Colm O'Rourke had a piece under the heading 'Nice Guys Finish Last' which, in fairness, took some liberties with what he had actually written. Still, both pieces infuriated Cork and left the rest of the country feeling that Meath didn't give a damn about how people perceived them. But, then, they didn't.
Meath's second coming under Boylan, during which they won two more All-Ireland titles wasn't without controversy either - not least in 1996 and the brawl in the replayed final with Mayo during which current manager, Colm Coyle, and Liam McHale (Mayo) were sent off early on and which subsequently led to a raft of suspensions.
That all came a few weeks after the sourness of the semi-final against today's opponents, Tyrone, who alleged that Peter Canavan, Brian Dooher and Ciaran McBride had been cynically targeted by Meath.
Tyrone were angry while Meath, after protesting their innocence, went on to win the All-Ireland, a feat they repeated three years later.
And when they went into the 2001 All-Ireland final as 4/9 favourites to beat Galway after beating Kerry by 15 points in the semi-final the good times looked set to continue rolling. However, they were stunned when Galway beat them by nine points, a setback that sent them spinning in a downward spiral which lasted until this year.
For a county that regarded Croke Park as a second home, Meath's record since beating Kerry in 2001 has been very poor - recording just three championship wins there from 12 games. It's not a world with which Meath supporters, who had grown accustomed to summer spectaculars, could readily identify.
Boylan remained in charge until the end of 2005 when many felt he should have gone earlier. The handover to Eamonn Barry was far from smooth as the new manager ran into difficulty with the County Board at a very early stage, so when Meath suffered two six-point defeats against Wexford and Laois in last year's championship, there was a mood for change.
Replacing a manager after just one season was a traumatic affair, especially since Meath had so little practice in the area, having had Boylan's steady hands on the steering wheel for 23 seasons.
With Barry departed, the pressure was on to coax one of Boylan's proteges to take over. The Board actually landed two, Colm Coyle as manager and Tommy Dowd as selector, while Dudley Farrell's experience was also harnessed in a fresh attempt at a re-launch.
Expectations were modest and while Meath did manage to win Division 2, a heavy defeat by Wexford in the final group game didn't exactly augur well for their championship prospects.
However, nothing energises Meath like the prospect of tackling Dublin in Croke Park and while they were beaten in a Leinster quarter-final replay, there was enough shape and substance to the performances to hint at a revival. Still, Coyle had more to worry him than the prospect of setting out on a long qualifying road.
Graham Geraghty's removal and subsequent recall to the panel, plus Joe Sheridan's decision to opt out were unwelcome distractions but, in a strange sort of way, seem to harden the squad's resolve. Their return to the traditional Meath values of hard work and dogged defiance stood to them as they eliminated Down, Fermanagh and Galway from the qualifiers.
Meath's qualifier record had been mixed over the last five years but they embraced it enthusiastically this year, most especially in the last game against Galway where they showed real determination after having a six-point lead wiped out.
That win was very significant as it clinched a place in the All-Ireland quarter-finals for the first time since 2001 and was further sweetened by being over Galway, the county that had instigated their descent in the first place.
Meath have been keen to talk down their impressive rate of progress as they attempt to cruise just below the radar. Tyrone won't buy into it. Nor should they. For while Meath are still in the development phase, the fundamentals are falling into place, although injuries to key defenders could not have come at a worst time.
However, the attack is beginning to expand into an interesting unit. Geraghty remains a major contributor; Shane O'Rourke is improving by the game; Brian Farrell has a good eye for goal; Anthony Moyles is a smart, thoughtful operator, while Stephen Bray is as advanced as anybody in the race for footballer of the year.
Meath have always held that the bigger the occasion, the better they respond. It's what might be termed a form of positive arrogance and, in Meath's case, is very much a virtue.
Already, they have extended their season by two weeks more than they have achieved at any time since 2001. They have established a serious claim to second place in Leinster behind Dublin for the first time since 2002 and are now ready to test themselves against one of the real super-powers of this decade.
Interesting times for Coyle and Co and, indeed, for the wider football world as they are about to discover if Meath can advance further in what has been a season of re-discovery.