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Battle Royal

 

Colm Coyle (No 5 ) looks on as Meath pair Jimmy McGuinness and John McDermott contest a high ball in the 1996 All-Ireland semi-final. Picture credit; Brendan Moran / Sportsfile
Colm Coyle (No 5 ) looks on as Meath pair Jimmy McGuinness and John McDermott contest a high ball in the 1996 All-Ireland semi-final. Picture credit; Brendan Moran / Sportsfile
Donnchadh Boyle

Donnchadh Boyle

It's rare that a single game can shape a relationship between two counties in the way the 1996 All-Ireland semi-final clash between Meath and Tyrone has done.

That was the first time the teams met in championship football and while there has been three more encounters since, the 1996 semi-final lives on in infamy.

Shaking hands with Tyrone manager Mickey Harte after his Meath team had beaten Tyrone in 2007. Picture Credit; Brian Lawless / Sportsfile
Shaking hands with Tyrone manager Mickey Harte after his Meath team had beaten Tyrone in 2007. Picture Credit; Brian Lawless / Sportsfile

The memories remain vivid. John McDermott's hit on Peter Canavan. Ciarán 'Dinky' McBride and Brian Dooher finishing the game with heavily bandaged heads. Or 'turbans' as Colm Coyle remembers them.

The following week, the game set the agenda on 'Liveline' with McBride and Colm O'Rourke debating the merits of the game. Coyle had a front-row seat, operating at half-back that day, and the fallout took him by surprise.

"That's the way games were," recalls the three-time All-Ireland winner. "Tyrone would have had a reputation in Ulster too because nice teams don't win, ya know? They were well able to dish it out

"There were a couple of incidents. Peter Canavan being hit late by John McDermott - they were going for the ball and Martin O'Connell and Brian Dooher too. But there were other incidents. Before the ball was thrown in, the Tyrone lads were hitting off the ball.

"I got a smack in the mouth towards the end, which I probably deserved, there was a lot of blood there but I didn't have a big bandage.

"I think the fact that three Tyrone lads were going around with turbans basically and everyone wanted Tyrone to win I suppose because they had been so close the year before. You get fallout like that."

Meath went into that game as underdogs, a bizarre situation considering they had beaten the reigning All-Ireland champions Dublin in the Leinster final.

"There was a cloud over that because Pat O'Neill was gone. Mickey Whelan was in there and was an excellent manager and was at the cutting edge of sport science and was trying to implement it.

Gloss

"And that seemed to take away from the gloss of it. People said Dublin were in disarray and things weren't right in the camp and they had hit the self-destruct button that was the reaction so we didn't get much credit for it."

Within the camp, the Royals might have felt up against it. Tyrone had dished out a hammering in a challenge game in Navan a few months earlier.

"They had given us a fair auld thumping," Coyle recalls. "But we learned a lot from that game. That was big for us beating them in the semi-final, they probably underestimated us and thought after we had beaten Dublin the path was clear for them. I remember in the game they were expecting to be further ahead and when they weren't they lost their shape and we kicked on and had a convincing enough win."

Meath would beat Tyrone handsomely. Graham Geraghty gave a performance that saw John O'Keeffe describe him as "the best half-forward in football since the heyday of Pat Spillane." But Coyle reckons the criticism they shipped saw them change their approach for the drawn All-Ireland final with Mayo.

"We were kind of going thinking we were not a dirty team but that's how we had been branded. And we went into the final and didn't play. Mayo did bully us."

The replay saw Meath win after 'that' brawl. As was the case in 1987 and '88, Meath were unpopular winners.

"We're still unpopular," Coyle said of the back-to-back team he played on in the 1980s.

"We were seen as a tough, dour team. But that's the way football was at the time. Ourselves and Cork were the top teams over four or five years and they were dour games. They were a tough team as well. We had that reputation and weren't popular."

Did that team care about their public image?

"Not a bit. And I wish we were back in that situation, being unpopular. Being honest, there's a lot of teams that have won All-Irelands and their style of play and method and the media can either get behind it or not. But we thrived on the thing."

Coyle was involved again when Meath stunned Tyrone in the All-Ireland quarter-final in 2007, this time as manager. Once again, it came against the head. The Red Hand would be All-Ireland champions a little more than a year later.

There's been two more championship meetings since, with Tyrone winning both and they'll play out meeting number five this afternoon. Coyle, who was manager of the county's minor team for a couple of seasons until last year, believes the work is finally being done at underage level to make them competitive again in the near future. As for this weekend, he is hopeful rather than expectant.

Disrespect

"I see it being along the lines of Fermanagh-Monaghan, not pretty from a spectator point of view. Tyrone get a lot of lads back and Meath are doing that now. Looking at it, I would consider Tyrone a better team than Longford and no disrespect to Longford but Tyrone are further down the line it looks like.

"Meath are trying hard. They are training as hard as any other team but it's a tough game and there's been some disappointing results so there's no form there to say Meath can win.

"Tyrone have injuries and suspensions and the knives seem to be out for Mickey Harte despite what he's done in the past and that can go either way for a team. It could unite them."

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