Colm O'Rourke: 'If it is war Meath want then the Dubs can give them that too'
The contrast between Cavan and Meath is startling. I was in Cavan during the week and took a drive around the town. It seemed every shop, filling station, school, house and business premises had the blue and white on display. Even bus stops had Cavan flags, while there were signs along the roads from the clubs wishing their men well. A great football county with a glorious history embracing the Ulster final.
Across the border in Meath there has been no such enthusiasm. The flags are few and far between and it has been hard to gauge any great anticipation of the Leinster final. It should not be like this. Both Cavan and Meath have storied pasts, but Meath's recent tradition of winning is greater. Yet there is no major outward sign of the support which might give a lift to the players and everyone else involved. It is a far cry from the 1980s, '90s and noughties.
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On the way to the semi-final against Laois, I could not help but notice the lack of Meath jerseys in cars. There was no queue of traffic like the old days with flags and jerseys. When the match started in Croke Park that day I was in the Hogan Stand and there could not have been much more than 500 people sitting across the way in the Cusack Stand. The collapse in support for all counties outside Dublin on this evidence appears terminal. Of course the Dubs sloped in late for their game - and left early. When Dublin went over the 20-point mark with ten minutes to go, the supporters all got thirsty.
The official position is that this hiccup in Leinster is temporary and the natural order of competition will soon be restored. I heard that ten years ago, five years ago and again now. It is a bit like Nero, the Roman Emperor, fiddling while Rome was consumed by fire. Something will turn up to solve the problem. Don't bet on it. John Horan says the dominance is down mainly to the time spent in promoting the games by volunteers. He is probably right, even if full-time coaches are a massive factor.
Yet there is nothing to suggest that the calibre of people doing it for the sheer love of the game is any better in Dublin than anywhere else. So it brings us back to numbers, finance and resources in general. That has not and does not look like it will be addressed any time soon. It is not a case of Dublin getting less but others must get more. As for the numbers game, I will stop banging that drum - at least for this week.
Barring a monumental slip-up, which we poor downtrodden Meath people hope for, Dublin will win again, the margin of victory being the only thing the bookies are debating. They set the handicap at 12 points, I would be very disappointed if it was anything like that, even allowing for the greatest football team on earth.
The ability to renew has been central to Dublin's success. A few years ago the forward line had Diarmuid Connolly, Bernard Brogan, Paul Flynn and Dean Rock. Now Con O'Callaghan and Niall Scully are central to the team. Rock is injured, Ciaran Kilkenny is as ever-present as the North Star while Cormac Costello has taken over as scorer-in-chief, both from play and frees. Costello has emerged as the best forward in the Dublin side during the League and early championship matches. By definition this makes him the best forward in the game at present and probably Dublin's most valuable player. He works very hard off the ball, has got stronger and can kick points off either foot. There are times when he could lay it off and set up goals. Just as well for opponents he normally just takes points.
Any talk of Dublin slipping is, to me, way off the mark. They have shown already what I have been preaching since early in the year. They were not very interested in the League but have spent the last couple of months going about their preparations quietly for the greatest show on earth. The personnel may change, but the hunger never fades.
Meath need a career best individually and collectively to even trouble the Dubs today. Years ago we went to Croke Park and always figured that if we stopped Dublin scoring goals we would win most of the time. A lot of wine has gone down the red lane since then. We also felt that we could rough them up a bit and then a bit more than that. If you have the opinion that you can tolerate more punishment physically and mentally than the opposition, then it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Even that doesn't work any more. The game has become sanitised and there is very little hitting on the ball, never mind off it. Now some officials, like linesmen and umpires, take their role so seriously that they report off-the-ball incidents to the referee! Things were much healthier when they just had a smoke and watched the game and did not get in the way of war.
If it is war Meath want then the Dubs can give them that too and it must be frustrating for players when they play Dublin that nothing seems to faze them. They don't appear to ever respond to either verbal or physical intimidation. If it came down to a physical battle they would murder everyone, such is their size and physique. Meath need to start well and keep in the hunt until half-time.
If they fall away early, Dublin will go through the motions. Against Kildare they appeared to be in second gear but still scored 26 points. Points rained down from all angles and distances, showing that they are the most accurate kickers of the ball by a long way.
Meath cannot match them physically but a lot of big dogs have run from smaller ones when the fight was at its most vicious. Against Laois, James Conlon was Meath's best player. He is the smallest man on the team yet was brave and showed all the time. Meath need Michael Newman to take a bit of the load off him. Bryan Menton scored two great goals that day - all he has to do today is score three and outplay Brian Fenton. Nothing is impossible.
Meath's best player for nearly a decade has been Donal Keogan. He would get on any Meath side of the last 50 years and is unfortunate to have been born when Meath are so uncompetitive. It is always the willing horse who takes the load, even if Conor McGill and James McEntee will give him plenty of support.
This could be a long afternoon for Meath. Dublin are putting the notches on their belt, two games gone and six to go. By half five they will be banking on that being down to five. They won't underestimate Meath and with Philly McMahon, Rory O'Carroll, Jonny Cooper and Dean Rock lurking around the subs, there will be no toleration of complacency. Perhaps a great storm will come with a plague of locusts to destroy Dublin. Nothing less appears able to throw them off course.
Like all Meath people, I am slightly afraid of the outcome. Yet there is more to a game than just the bare result. How did players stand up to the test? Did they live up to their responsibilities and perform like men even if things were going badly? Were they brave and honest? Did they never let their heads drop? So there is winning and losing and honour. We must have an honourable performance.
In Ulster there does not appear to be any form of doomsday scenario. Cavan are outsiders but they will get their teeth in and won't let go. They showed that against both Monaghan and Armagh. Not only that, but Cavan should not be underestimated in terms of football quality. The points in the last quarter of the replay against Armagh hinted at a team who were only getting going and may not still understand how good they could be.
If this game was taking place a few years ago then it would be a pure dog of a match. Both sides would sit back and try to grind out a result. We should be glad that Declan Bonner and Mickey Graham are in charge of their counties, because they encourage their players to show their individual skills and attack.
It is not all gung-ho of course. Against Tyrone, Donegal withdrew all their men into defensive positions on many occasions, but the speed of break-out was thrilling and the quality of passing was exceptional.
I have written on many occasions that Donegal are one of the few teams who are equipped to beat Dublin. They have size, power, mobility, skill and the McHughs are there to do a bit of hovering up on the ground. They also have better individual players than any other county with the exception of Dublin - Eoghan Bán Gallagher, Ryan McHugh, Jamie Brennan, Ciaran Thompson, Patrick McBrearty... the list goes on. And Shaun Patton in goals compares with anyone. Then of course there is Michael Murphy, who appears more mobile this year than for a long time. Perhaps he was carrying injuries but he has been getting around the pitch much better after coming back from his early spring absence.
The observations I made about him on television before the Tyrone match have provoked a lot of comment from Donegal, but all I said was that over the last few years he has not played well in a lot of big games, which I listed. He then went and had one of the best matches of his career against Tyrone, but that in itself did not change the point I made.
Cavan are no slouches in the individual stakes. Conor Madden, Gearoid McKiernan, Jason McLoughlin, Conor Moynagh, Martin Reilly, Killian Clarke and Dara McVeety will not be overrun.
Their spirit and self-sacrifice shone through against Armagh and is probably one of the reasons why there is so much colour abroad around the county. The supporters believe in this team. They need to become a solid first division team for a few years because there is potential in this Cavan group and Mickey Graham looks like the man to get the best out of them.
Both of these teams will probably be in the last eight and could be serious contenders in the future. My feeling is that Donegal are a bit more mature in that regard. Donegal for Ulster and Cavan for the Super 8.
Sunday Indo Sport