Thursday 17 October 2019

Ewan MacKenna: 'Kildare and Meath are seeing a big population boom, but an obvious obstacle still stands in their way'

Kildare and Meath have improved in recent years, but still lag far behind Dublin. Photo by Piaras Ó Mídheach/Sportsfile
Kildare and Meath have improved in recent years, but still lag far behind Dublin. Photo by Piaras Ó Mídheach/Sportsfile
Ewan MacKenna

Ewan MacKenna

"Ah no, ah no," Kevin McStay cried from his commentary position high in the Hogan Stand. "Look it," he added, "if you know the game, how could you call a free at 14-all with seconds left in it?"

Eamonn Callaghan had kicked 1-1 as the clock ran out on Kildare, when Andriú MacLochlainn and Bernard Brogan tussled innocuously, and Dublin rejoiced in a way not seen at such an early juncture of the season since. Some thought it might be the end of the beginning of a new and blossoming rivalry; instead it was the beginning of the end of the whole Leinster Championship.

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Since that semi-final in 2011 when there was just a point between those sides, the average score of a Dublin provincial match comes out at a staggering and boring 26-12. And for those who still believe this is temporary and sorting itself out, the 2018 edition was the most comprehensive of any, with that same average reading 32-12. Indeed in the 22 games since Brogan got that free, not once has his county been within a kick of actually losing.

Close to 60,000 were there eight years ago. Close to 70,000 were there the following year when Meath gave the final a go but learned their lesson also. This weekend, while quarter-finals, the fact we've gone from some standalone games in headquarters to accommodate those interested, to a couple of double-headers in provincial grounds where tickets aren't gold dust, tells you everything. Yet at a time when Munster hurling is booming, and given the local and tribal nature of the sport, there's something wrong. After all, at last census, Kildare's population grew by 5.6 per cent, making it the fourth most bustling place in the Republic, while Meath grew by 5.9 per cent, placing it at six.

That should jar with the GAA in each and every sense.

Before we go on, this isn't again about Dublin's advantages. The problem is it's impossible to talk about those unfortunate enough to border them without talking about the impact they've had.

Ultimately, there's a lot of hearts and minds that have been lost.

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"I find Kildare the most frustrating team to watch because of the talent and ability they have," complained Tomás Ó Sé from his studio seat on The Sunday Game. "It's the same speech this time every year. It's unerring isn't it? Word for word," Joe Brolly chirped in beside him.

Neither were wrong after looking at Kildare the last day but, as with Meath, there’s cause and effect.

Long lost rivals, there are so many comparisons to draw today to the point that both analysts could have been talking about either. Where once Meath's dreamy delusion and Kildare's dreary depression sent them in opposite directions, now it sends them to same conclusion only with one sleep-walking and the other wide-awake as they move towards inevitability. 

That's crucial when considering both counties along with their size and potential. Being the ugly sister in a rich family isn't what you might think, as the focus is on the looks and not the money.

Pockmarking some recent seasons, we've seen flashes. Kildare beating a Mayo team that were believed to be elite, albeit in exceptional circumstances; beating Cork in 2015; and going toe-to-toe with Monaghan a year prior. Meath last season falling out to Longford but being the better side against ultimate All-Ireland finalists Tyrone, yet only coming close as in 2015 too. Little shoots, but no more.

Could both places have done more? Absolutely.

And this isn't to exonerate those within county boards.

But they are doing much good that can’t come to much good at the zenith of their sport.

Meath are coming off the back of their first provincial minor title in 10 years and are also back in Division One. Meanwhile, this decade Kildare have been in four Leinster minor finals and won three, which is more than Dublin have.

In that period they've been to four Leinster U21/20 finals, winning two of them, adding an All Ireland, and possess the Player the of the Year.

They've also started winning at schools level, with Naas CBS doing two in-a-row in Leinster and very nearly adding an All-Ireland as well. Yet for all the raw materials, it's a reminder of the step up too.

Are all these players bad? Were all those managers bad? No, but if smaller counties are used to show what can be done, it's to miss a key point.

What both Kildare and Meath have isn't a lack of quality compared to others, but they do face circumstances those others don't. When they play in the qualifiers, it's having fallen from a province that shows them a ceiling and shows they can never win. Those they meet there come from provinces that give them every reason to improve as they could and can win. Roscommon, as an example of good practice, don't enter this weekend as Kildare do, wondering if it's better to fall now and have their season take a set-back versus win and possibly have their entire project take a set-back. Just as Cavan didn't have to deal with that dilemma last weekend.

In Leinster though? If someone put a concrete wall across a 100m track and tells you to run, are you really going hard and fast? It's like clipping a birds wings and demanding that it fly.

If Daniel Flynn could actually win some silverware this summer, he'd likely be in white rather than just back from America.

Of course, this isn't solely geographical in terms of sharing a room with Dublin, for it leads to sociological and psychological debilitation far beyond the senior fields as well.

If this has been turned into a numbers game, then it's complex. For sure, Dublin have to do more than just sit back, they've to put their advantages within their control to excellent use. However, the neighbours therefore have to contend with figures they cannot control. It's not just population either but, in a money game, cash creates inequality rather than wealth for all. At that point there are dominos.

While even those within the Dublin set-up talk about the importance of inward migration and how those who came to the city from the country got involved, that isn't always reciprocated. Speaking to people in clubs from Trim to Athy this week, not one club official said that a growth in their town's population resulted in any great growth in their club. Those numbers are on paper, not on grass. Often it's because they are dormitory stopovers for those moving from the capital yet, even when those that move do get involved, it doesn't affect their new county.

Last year, as an example, the bus advertised by the Donaghmore-Ashbourne club wasn't for the Meath game, it was for Dublin-Wicklow. Kildare is no different. From Grange in the very south of the county having the same Bernard Brogan that tumbled in 2011 turn the sod on a new pitch, to Kilcullen handing out a signed Dublin jersey as the big prize in their raffle, to Clane in the north having their clubhouse hosting an event headlined by Dublin's latest batch of champions with Sam Maguire to Jim Gavin on the bill for a major fundraiser. That is telling and damning.

It's all well and good to say these counties need to get transplants to buy in, but when no Leinster player outside the capital ever gets to celebrate, and with kids associating with winning, there's only so much you can do. Dublin always being victorious has created a brand in an era when people want winners, not locals. It's why merchandise in these places is light blue. It's why teachers in schools there tell you on no-uniform days, Premier League and Dublin tops dominate.

It’s a vicious circle. No matter how fertile the soil, tear up the trees and soon it'll be desert.

This isn't about Dublin, in so much as anything in Leinster football can’t be about Dublin.

It's about Kildare and Meath, but their problem is that the brightest flame casts the darkest shadow.

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