Tuesday 13 November 2018

Expect a Royal party by tea

Even if Meath's forwards just win 40% of the possession, writes Colm O'Rourke, that has been enough for them to wreak havoc

IT would be hard to convince people in recent days about the importance of sport, but for about 75 minutes today, in a field near the centre of Dublin, a bunch of great athletes and sportsmen will shut out everything from their minds and harness their energy, skill and bravery to strive for the highest honour in their chosen game.

Despite the horrors of the past 13 days, there is still something very special in the idea of these young men from Meath and Galway giving all they can for a fleeting moment of honour and glory which cannot realistically be measured. It is the pinnacle of their sport, the reward for the victor a medal.

Players have spent huge time and commitment in perfecting their skills, yet it will be a match where the most basic mistakes will still be made and where the issue may be decided just as much by the poor judgement of some players as the brilliance of others.

Every manager hopes to have his team at its sharpest mentally and physically for this day, but they won't know until it is too late whether that is the case. Seán Boylan would take a repeat of the semi-final win over Kerry, when every player took control of his own destiny, but he also knows such displays are rarely, if ever, repeated.

Anyone who has played for high stakes has had days when the ball became an extension of mind and body and a feeling of inner calm and control existed. But there is another side, days when the same effort ran aground in frustration. The problem is not knowing, at least some of the time, which is coming.

What everyone will be looking for early on in today's match is whether Meath's form is a repeat of the Kerry game, or an average of what went before? If it is the former, Galway have no chance: given the latter, then all bets are off.

My belief is that the Kerry game is misleading, even allowing for the fact that many in the Meath camp, including some of the players, felt that there was a big performance coming. Now most don't know what to expect and naturally there is a certain fear that the wheels could fall off spectacularly.

Meath face a proud Galway team who have been hardened by years of experience, not least last year's defeat in the final. Letting one All-Ireland slip is a bit careless but to lose another with a league final thrown in in would be downright unforgiveable.

Winning, though, would be the greatest stroke of all time because most football followers regard Meath as walking certainties. It would make the players heroes for life all that is needed is to play like a lion for 70 minutes, a small price to pay for the respect that would last a lifetime.

Meath have to balance due regard for the quality of Galway with belief and confidence in their own ability. Too much confidence breeds arrogance, while too much respect for any opposition often results in players waiting for things to happen rather than dictating the exchanges.

One thing for sure is that Galway have the capacity to play at a hectic pace for the whole game. The players, who have had several years of hard training, are a tough bunch and will be quite happy with whatever level the physical stakes are.

GALWAY will at least match Meath in most parts of the field but there still has to be a doubt surrounding the ability of the full-back line to stop Murphy, Geraghty and Magee. If it comes down to man against man, then the forwards will surely win 40% of the possession and that has been enough for Geraghty and Murphy to wreak havoc this year.

Galway are hardly going to allow their half-backs to be pulled way out the field, give the inside line of defence a pat on the back and say 'the best of luck to you lads and may the best man win.' What they will do is try and flood their defensive area with as many bodies as possible. Tommy Joyce will probably play close to, if not behind, his centre back. Michael Donnellan will spend time in defence too, so Meath may not have the sort of room they have been used to. Dublin tried this policy in the Leinster final with some success and if Galway succeed in forcing Meath to short pass up the field because the road ahead is full of Galway jerseys then they will be half way there.

Meath's game is so embarrassingly simple that if they are not able to kick long ball to the forwards there might even be a slight bit of nervousness. What do we do now? Great players, however, make things up as they go along and the simplicity of Meath's tactics means they also depend on individual players having the football intelligence to change to suit the circumstances.

Sometimes it is hard to convince people of the simplicity of Meath football. They suspect that behind the exterior there is some type of Machiavellian plot to lull other teams into a false sense of security before dropping the guillotine. Games are won or lost by the number of players who can achieve high standards on a given day. Great players play even better in crunch matches. Strip away all the talk and plans and it is as uncomplicated as that.

Meath have half a dozen brilliant players by any standards. Anyone who has watched football over for the last few years knows that applies to Darren Fay, John McDermott, Trevor Giles and Graham Geraghty, while Ollie Murphy has been a recent applicant to the club. The only better men to have ever played for Meath were Finn MacCumhaill, Cúchulainn, Harry Houdini and Roy of the Rovers!

However, what makes Meath so dangerous is that the rest of the team play for the team and not for themselves: Donal Curtis, Evan Kelly, Richie Kealy, Mark O'Reilly are ever willing to do the slave's work without much recognition.

But the fly in the Meath ointment is that Galway may have as many class players. Michael Donnellan, Derek Savage, Seán de Paor, Pádraig Joyce have just as much ability as the Meath stars and if Ja Fallon is right, then the Meath half-backs will get to know what defending is about again after a soft ride the last day.

The only thing I am not totally convinced about is whether the back-up is as good. If the Faheys, Declan Meehan and Kevin Walsh match their counterparts then nobody will be catching the five o'clock bus.

AND Galway do have another advantage: their bench is stronger and when Matthew Clancy makes his appearance he will be running in straight lines while Michael Donnellan will test the pace of Nigel Crawford early on.

If the weather holds this should be a great game. It may not be a simple game of man-on-man but there will be a certain amount of zonal marking as both sides attempt to cut off the long ball to the inside forwards. At times it will be seven backs against five forwards with a maze of people around the middle of the pitch who don't seem to be marking anyone.

There will a few duels which will decide things. Mark O'Reilly will hardly follow Tommy Joyce but may pick up Derek Savage, leaving Cormac Murphy the spare man at the back. Obviously the Fay-Joyce clash will be vital while at the other end the Fahey brothers face the greatest examination of their fortitude, as well as their football ability.

Before last year's final I said Galway were a team with a lot of moderate players. The changes at the back are a major improvement and goalkeeper Alan Keane has had a great season for a rookie. A nice quiet build-up with no talk of doubles is no harm either and in terms of physical fitness Galway are one county who can match Meath. Most teams still run out of petrol in the last quarter despite all the talk of fanatical training regimes.

Yet, if this becomes a war of attrition without an inch of space available and you have to score a goal and thirteen or fourteen points to win, then it would be hard to look beyond Meath's strikeforce. However, if Meath are anything less than fully wound up Galway will go for the jugular, and they have the ruthless troops for such an assignment.

So long as players don't believe their own publicity and realise it may take cunning, patience and the total application of their savage hunger to succeed, I expect that Meath, by teatime, will have started a Royal party.

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