Friday 23 March 2018

Stranger's tale turns surreal

Seamus McEnaney has misread the mood in Meath and the knives are out, writes John O'Brien

D uring an interview a while back Seán Boylan related an old story. It was the summer of 1992 and to enhance an ageing panel he had a notion to introduce a prolific 19-year-old blond by the name of Graham Geraghty. This raised the hackles of his under 21 counterparts, alarmed at the physical implications this might entail for the player. Boylan relented. Then a week later he picked up a local paper to learn that Geraghty had been sent off playing soccer for Kentstown.

So it has been from the beginning until now. A football life lived to the soundtrack of tapping fingers and clicking shutters, still breathing at the age of 38. When the Meath Chronicle ran a story about Geraghty returning to the Meath panel as its April Fool's joke it wasn't clear whether they deemed it so outlandish to be funny or plausible enough to be swallowed as truth. Either way, Geraghty's financial woes -- no joke -- made the news that day and the football story lost whatever mileage it had.

It's inconceivable, though, that Seamus McEnaney could then have taken such a decision, so close to the championship, with no idea of the conflicting forces he was unleashing. In restoring Geraghty he was adding a lively and strong-minded character to a football landscape that had no shortage in that department. Strong characters and colourful personalities. This Meath story abounds with them.

There's a widespread sense in Meath that, one of these mornings, they will wake up from this strangest of dreams to see things progressing smoothly to next week's championship opener against Kildare. They know none of this should really be happening. Geraghty should be getting on with his life, seeing out his footballing days with Clann na nGael. And wherever life took Banty after Monaghan, it shouldn't have been to a county where the old traditional certainties still hold sway.

The ghosts of last summer still reverberate. Wind back to the county board meeting in the wake of the controversial Leinster final defeat of Louth and the knife being sharpened for the unfortunate Eamonn O'Brien. Delegates had waited patiently for hours in Navan that night only to be kept in the dark until the executive released a statement the following day. They left seething and, reportedly, harbouring vague notions of exacting revenge.

O'Brien was a victim of the crossfire. Even though he had delivered Meath's first Leinster title in a decade, the manager was willing to face delegates and present his case for another term. Had he done so it's almost certain they would have granted it. Instead, the executive committee dispensed with that process and presented O'Brien's candidacy as a done deal. The smartened delegates shot it down. Meath were in the market for a new manager.

The problem was there was only one realistic native contender: Liam Harnan. But Harnan was reluctant to put his name forward. He had a large dairy herd to manage and Skryne were gunning for a first Leinster title. He had also recently quit as Meath under 16 manager and may have felt there was too much baggage with the county board. But this was a chance to gain more experience and wait for the structures within the county to improve.

It was either an exciting mix or a recipe for trouble. From the beginning McEnaney was noticeably deferential towards Harnan -- "a hero of Meath football" -- but having to share the bill with a living legend would not have been ideal. Did Micko have to do it in Wicklow? McGeeney in Kildare? O'Mahony in Galway? They were all top managers, of course, but Banty would always have seen himself in that bracket.

An official who had observed them from the start sensed no warm embrace. "Things weren't working," he says. "There was no chemistry there. You can put Jennifer Aniston and Brad Pitt together and they seem like a good couple but they couldn't function together in marriage. It might look ideal from the outside but they couldn't work as a couple."

There was a shared assumption that once the games started they would establish a certain momentum. They had guarded themselves against the "bounce" factor: a team energised by a fresh set-up, kicking out of the blocks before the inevitable tapering off as the season wore on. They'd have taken that, though. Not the shockingly inept league campaign that only saw them escape relegation to Division 3 courtesy of a final-day draw against Tyrone.

"New management teams get a bounce factor," says one observer. "There's a honeymoon effect. Like you see with Mick O'Dwyer in Wicklow or McGeeney in Kildare. Where teams actually play better than they're able to before they go back to a level plateau. Our bounce wasn't very high."

In a winning set-up the friction between Banty and Harnan might not have been such a critical issue. As the team lurched from one dismal performance to the next, however, the potential for conflict increased. Meath weren't just losing games but playing in a fussy, over-elaborate manner that seemed to confuse the players and alienated the diehards for whom Meath's traditional, direct style was a non-negotiable badge of identity.

Inevitably, dismal performances drove an ever-expanding wedge between them. However diligently Banty was in familiarising himself with Meath football, the perception grew that when it came to dealing with a disgruntled public, it was Harnan and Callaghan who were being left to face the flak. As one acquaintance of Harnan puts it: "It's all very well farting in one room when you live in another."

Week by week, the grievances mounted. That Banty agreed to appear as co-commentator on RTE radio for the Ulster championship opener between Donegal and Antrim while a full round of club championship games took place in Meath went down like a lead balloon. If he was so enthusiastic about Geraghty, they argue, why wasn't he in Bohermeen to see Clann na nGael beat St Ultan's in the intermediate championship?

The idea of inviting Geraghty and Darren Fay to join the panel had been discussed a week earlier. Harnan and Callaghan had dismissed it out of hand and expected to hear no more about it. Then last Friday, with Callaghan abroad on business, Harnan was delegated to meet a group of players at 5.30 in Trim where they boarded a bus for a challenge against Westmeath in Rosemount. Banty and the first-choice players would train in Navan later that evening. Events in Meath football had taken on a surrealist tinge.

It is only about 30 miles from Trim to Rosemount but those on board would have felt every mile of the journey. It was the first inkling the likes of Brian Farrell, Cian Ward, Anthony Moyles and Cormac McGuinness would have had that they probably weren't in the manager's plans for Kildare. "How can you divide a panel two weeks before the championship," says one player incredulously. "And more or less tell half of them they're not going to be involved?"

Later that evening, Harnan would field a call from a reporter seeking his view on Geraghty's comeback. It was the first Harnan had heard of it. Although less than happy, he had shared Callaghan's resolve to sit tight until the end of the championship -- four months if you were wildly optimistic -- and then review the management structure with all the interested parties. Now they had been backed into a corner.

As for Banty's motives, there are two schools of thought. Either he was using Geraghty to impose his authority, grievously misjudging the extreme consequences, or he was simply acting in the best interests of the team. With Geraghty on board, after all, they beat Galway in a challenge last weekend and the spin from within the camp is that morale has picked up. And for all the scathing criticism from old hands like Bernard Flynn and Liam Hayes, it is notable that Flynn still believes they can beat Kildare. In that scenario, Banty would gain leverage.

Would it be enough, though? For the first time in their history Meath will field a championship team with no Meathman running the line and, for some, it is too much. "You have to have a passion for a county," says Dudley Farrell, father of Brian and a selector under Colm Coyle. "How can you have a passion for Monaghan or Kildare one year and a passion for Meath the next? You can't turn a tap on and create it. When they sold this package we were told they'd bring Meath to a new level. Well, they certainly did that. They brought it to an all-time low."

Whatever ability Geraghty retains, Farrell argues, the benefits of his return won't compensate for the damage done and that, he feels, is the consensus view. "People are annoyed. I've been involved in Meath football for many years. How's Eamonn O'Brien feeling now? Banty winning a Leinster this year won't be good enough. I don't think he's thought things out too well. He's got a three-year term but in my opinion he hasn't a snowball's chance in hell of seeing out the year."

For better or worse, these are the feelings Banty has stirred in a proud football county. In six years with Monaghan he left the impression that no challenge was too intimidating, no odds too severe not to be tackled head on with confidence. In Meath, that conviction will receive its ultimate test.

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