Thursday 26 April 2018

Getting on with the game

Today offers Meath a welcome release from the after-effects of the Leinster final saga, writes Dermot Crowe

I N a recent online poll in the Meath Chronicle, almost half of voters opposed the decision not to offer Louth a rematch after the Leinster final ended in calamity. As a measure of public opinion, it is not claiming to be scientific, but nonetheless conveys some degree of conflict in the Meath state of mind. Ultimately, however, people will read what they want into polls and if they don't like the outcomes, they'll dismiss them.

A member of the county board, preferring to remain anonymous, illustrated his misgivings. "I don't believe the Meath Chronicle poll. Being a member of the county board, people would have said 'you did the right thing'. Certainly, no one said 'you did the wrong thing'. About 80 per cent of the people I spoke to said they felt it was not our job to make that call."

Even the newspaper concerned has its own interpretation. Fergal Lynch writes on GAA affairs for the Chronicle and downplays the poll results, his gut instinct telling him that the objectors are not the kind who would be regular GAA followers. He says opinion is heavily weighed in favour of the decision taken. "Very definitely," Lynch asserts, "eight out of ten would have been against a rematch." Whatever way you choose to handle the data, the episode has soured Meath's victory and conspired to create a sense of isolation similar to past brushes with the GAA establishment.

On the ground you will hear every strand of opinion, but all cling to a communal defence: that Meath has no case to answer and was placed under unwarranted pressure to relent. Lynch runs a pub in Trim which was packed on the night of the victory. He detected no trace of guilt or hint of apology in the celebrations. "I bought a mirror with 'Meath Leinster Champions 2010' on it and it's up in the pub now," he explains, as if declaring final judgement on the matter. His establishment is directly across the road from a pub run by Darren Fay, the former Meath player. No sheepishness about the revelry then? "No," he says convincingly. "A few sheepish heads the next day, maybe."

Martin Murray, the Trim GAA secretary, is equally satisfied the right course was taken. "The general feeling in our club anyway is that it shouldn't have been replayed. I think there was a cop-out by Leinster Council throwing it back on Meath. Meath did nothing wrong, they abided by the rules, the ref made the decision. I suppose what happened, the incidents after the match, probably coloured our opinions. Not saying it is typical of the Louth supporters, but people changed attitudes (as a result)."

Today's game offers a welcome release and distraction from Meath's post-Leinster final ordeal. How recent weeks impact on the team is hard to tell. "Facing a resurgent Kildare you don't know how Meath are going to bounce back," says Murray. "People react different to incidents; it could be a driver, a positive, the first ten minutes of the game will tell a lot."

* * * * *

ON Tuesday night, a hardy wind blew down Páirc Tailteann as team trainer Sean Kelly put the controversially crowned Leinster champions through their drills. Meath have been in this place before, feeling under siege, stigmatised, alienated. The mass sympathy devoted to Louth's cause had the converse implication for Meath. While this time they could not be regarded as the villain of the piece, neither were they the hero, though they were champions and, therefore, entitled to their hour of glory. Memories of the late 1980s quarrel with Cork, the falling out with the GAA's leading henchmen, and the mid-1990s spat with Mayo ("31 counties against us") came flooding back. On this evening, in the week of the Kildare match, only a handful of admirers have gathered to watch from the stands. Martin O'Connell, an inspirational Meath footballer in his time, is present with his kids. The manager Eamonn O'Brien observes mostly from the sidelines.

When they reached the All-Ireland quarter-final in 2007 the fever was more palpable and they arrived there without the current distinction of being champions. The cup raised by Nigel Crawford three weeks ago also seems to be maintaining a discreet profile, not doing the rounds or pictured with the usual prominence. Even the county secretary admitted that the achievement had been tainted. There are well-sourced claims that the county executive wanted a rematch but that some more senior players, and management, were strongly opposed. But once the decision was made, they all stood united.

Meath have been going quietly about their business, in monkish contrast to the loud-hailer howls of persecution from Louth. The greatest excitement around Páirc Tailteann on Tuesday night was being generated by a bingo event taking place in the Navan O'Mahony's clubhouse nearby. A series of local championship matches helped restore some normality. Louth have packed up and gone home. Meath bring their already embattled credentials as provincial champions into the teeth of a Kildare challenge. After a poor Leinster final performance, they are intent on proving themselves worthy ambassadors for the province against a county already defeated by Louth.

"I always judge teams by the last game and I suppose they did not perform on the day," says Colm Coyle, who knows many of the players intimately from spells as a manager and a selector under Seán Boylan. "They were below par and yet they won, so I suppose each player would look on his own performance -- I would expect them to come out firing on all cylinders on Sunday.

"The lads, having been involved with them as a selector and later as manager, I know the effort they have put in. My view would be that the lads are deserving of a Leinster title. The only thing about it is there are a lot of neutrals (who) would be casting aspersions about whether they deserve it or not. It was an illegal goal but overall I don't think they should have any conscience (issues), they have put an awful lot of work in. It's unfortunate that this group of lads should eventually win and have this shadow cast over them. It's unfortunate from that point of view."

Even Coyle is torn between two conflicting positions. He believes the players deserve their medals but if he were placed in the same position, he'd have said "listen, just play them again". He believes they would have set the record straight in a rematch. "But," he states, sounding a familiar refrain, "there were other incidents that went against Meath. And going back I remember Mick Lyons in '91 (breaking the rules) when Keith Barr was taking a penalty. We have been on the receiving end as well. I can remember Kieran Duff scoring a goal against Meath and he must have taken 12-14 steps."

The county board man says Meath felt cornered. But would it not have been a good PR move? "It would have gone down well with certain people, certainly; it would not have gone down well with everyone in Meath. It would have gone down well with the chat shows and that type of thing. The value of that, the chat shows, the disc jockeys, that's debatable how much that is worth in terms of PR."

* * * * *

B RENDAN O'REILLY is secretary of Carnaross GAA club and his work takes him into Cavan. "I was talking to a Cavan fella today and the first thing he said was, 'ye didn't give it back yet'." They've knocked some crack out of it too. O'Reilly has absorbed varied opinion as he moves around different work locations. "To me, it was a win but it was not a win. If I had any say in the matter, I would be in favour of a replay. I don't think they would be as bad again. I am on the road and there are for and against. Meath should never have been put in a corner. It's one you want to be putting behind you. It was a hollow kind of win."

Working with him is the former Monaghan footballer Declan Smyth. He asked Smyth, as an ex-player, if he thought the Meath footballers had made the right call. "He told me that as a player he would want to forget about it and leave it be."

In spite of recent events he is hearing positive feedback from the players' camp to the effect that "they are ready for Kildare."

Michael Carr, the Wolfe Tones' club secretary, believes the right decision was taken in light of some of the scenes which followed and the pressure imposed on Meath. "Personally, I would have gone for a replay; to seal the issue. I am a long time round football. I know how hard it is to win a trophy or a medal. You don't like any cloud over it. There was no discussion about it in our club; it was left to the players. We did not discuss it with the two players (Eoghan Harrington and Cian Ward). They made that decision; it was final, we accept that.

"I have followed Meath all over the place and seen incidents where there were wrongs done to Meath too. I recall an incident when a point was going over the bar from Bernard Flynn and the ref blew the whistle. I think it was against Kildare, the ball was in flight. He blew the final whistle."

The incident he refers to took place in the 1991 Leinster championship match against Wicklow which ended in a draw. Flynn had sent a match-winning effort sailing between the posts but the referee blew his whistle for full-time with the ball in flight. Flynn remains adamant to this day that the ball had passed the posts when the whistle sounded. Meath won the replay.

"There were two incidents (in the Leinster final) that went against us," states Carr. "One against Eoghan Harrington for handling the ball on the ground and clearly he didn't -- a point was scored from it. And there was the Crawford one. One thing for definite -- it wasn't a goal. We are going to get on with it; we will go as far as we can. If we don't get past Kildare, that's it, end of story; we weren't good enough."

Do they arrive in Croke Park feeling diminished? "Oh God no," grins Colm Coyle. "There is that question mark over the goal, let's call a spade a spade -- it wasn't a goal. But there were incidents before as Eamonn O'Brien pointed out. These things happen in a game. Now I thought overall a draw would have been the fairer result. The Meath lads would have another day out to show their true colours."

In Dunboyne, the secretary of St Peter's, Brendan McNamee, found himself in an awkward position, being a Louth native. But he saw no argument. "People felt the Meath County Board and Meath players should not have become the focal point of making the decision. I think the people felt it (the win) was tarnished. But that the pressure should not have come on the board."

* * * * *

T HE Meath players have left the training field and Eamonn O'Brien appears at the rear of the stand. It seems like a good time to introduce oneself; evidently, he does not. Shaking his head when asked if it might be possible have a few words, he spells out that this is his "work place" -- the approach is an intrusion. He has a players' meeting to attend. Some efforts follow to explain that an ambush was not the intention. He offers his telephone number and suggests calling him the next day.

What follows the next day is a bland exchange of nothing-speak and stonewalling cliché. The Leinster final isn't discussed -- enough has been written about that he maintains: "What happened, happened, and we have moved on from it. The Leinster final is over and we are into the All-Ireland series. It's not relevant at this stage."

On the previous evening's encounter, he repeats that training is his "workplace" and that it would be natural for anyone to resent someone entering their workplace unannounced. I would myself, I am told. As was, no doubt, the intention, the Meath manager had nothing of any value to say.

They've had their fill of Louth and the Leinster final debacle and if nobody loves them then, well, they can't afford the time to care. Whatever happens against Kildare today, the summer's events won't be easily erased from the memory or avoid leaving some imprint on the Meath psyche. There are plenty of people in Meath who would have preferred if Seamus Kenny had put his late chance over the bar and taken the game to a replay rather than winning on those terms.

Down at Skryne, the club secretary Michael Lynch texted his club's committee the day after the Leinster final to assess opinion in advance of that night's county board meeting. "Half said yes and half said no. There was a split. It should never have come down to the county board or the players."

Lynch was one of those leaning towards the rematch option. "Without doubt the gloss had been totally taken off it," he says. "I don't think it will be forgotten if the lads win on Sunday. Kildare is going to be a tough game. If they win I think it will be a bit of justification for getting to the quarter-finals. But people won't forget it.

"End of the day it was not of Meath's doing. People may look unfavourably when they did not give the replay. After the 1988 All-Ireland final against Cork, a bit of a siege mentality set in. It is kind of back again if you ask me. It's us against the rest."

Will it place a strain on the players? "I haven't spoken to Paddy (O'Rourke, the Meath reserve 'keeper) -- I know from my own experience of playing football, that it depends on the player. I think that display against Louth was way below par. I can't see them playing like that again."

Not a moment too soon, the time has come for football to do the talking.

Sunday Independent

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