How Meath set Dublin on the road to Sam
Royals' five-goal demolition job in 2010 was 'wake-up call that forced Pat Gilroy to change the whole philosophy', as Barry Cahill recalls
ON THE Tuesday night after their 2010 Leinster Championship defeat to Meath, the Dublin footballers assembled at their base in St Clare's to sift through the debris.
Losing heavily at Croke Park was not a new experience for this bunch of players, who had been pillaged by the beardy men from Tyrone two seasons before and torn apart from Kerry the previous August.
The earwigs had been startled again, but this time they wouldn't have to stew on it all winter. This time they could address the issue.
The meeting ran longer than most of Pat Gilroy's debriefs. There was much to discuss.
How had Meath breached their rearguard five times in 70 minutes? What could Dublin do to make sure it didn't happen again?
They had been through the rubble before, but after their dominance in Leinster had been brought crashing down in such humiliating circumstances by their oldest rivals, there was a realisation that change had to come.
Three months later they ran eventual All-Ireland winners Cork within a point in an epic semi-final and within 15 months they had lifted Sam Maguire and were heading to Coppers.
The work had begun before that defeat to the Royals but it was the starkness of that loss, and the sickening feeling that every time the ball went into the Dublin full-back line a goal looked likely, that forced the players to accept that something needed to give.
"The week after that game we had a couple of meetings and Pat Gilroy decided to change the whole philosophy," recalls Barry Cahill, who played at half-back that day.
"I think it had been a work in progress in the league that year anyway on the back of the heavy defeat to Kerry the previous August, but it was really enforced after that Meath game. We knew going into the back door we might have a couple of games to tweak things depending on how the draw went, but for us to be successful we couldn't afford to be as open as we were.
"In the previous round, we had been lucky to get Wexford to extra-time and, if we had lost, we might not have analysed ourselves as much as we did after the Meath game.
"The manner of that loss... conceding five goals was embarrassing really. To do it against your local rivals rubbed salt in the wound. It was a wake-up call, everybody sat up and said we have to change it, everyone has to buy into that and if you don't then you're not going to be part of the group going forward."
They addressed it and made changes. The draw was kind and when they ran out in front of a sparsely populated Croke Park 10 days later to face Tipperary, there were five new faces.
The template for 2011 was being laid.
Watching those five goals now, the striking thing is how weak Dublin were in the tackle and how exposed they were when they lost possession.
"One thing that did happen to us at that stage was if we lost the ball coming out of our half-back line we were very exposed," Cahill says.
"When we won the ball in our own half it was all-out attack, from our defenders and that isn't the way to go about it, particularly against good teams because they will punish you in the wide open spaces of Croke Park. That day, the likes of Stephen Bray and Joe Sheridan were well able to finish and we played into their hands.
"Afterwards, we focused a lot more on getting tack-
les in, right throughout the pitch and particularly in the middle third. Our forwards were made aware that defence starts in the full-forward line."
They got over Tipperary and then faced Armagh, a team who had beaten them twice earlier in the decade and, although on the wane, represented the type of side that this Dubs side would normally struggle against. They won 0-14 to 0-11, and although it wasn't pretty, they were back on track.
"It was a big game for us," Cahill explains. "It was a low enough scoring game and we managed to keep Steven McDonnell and a few of those boys quiet enough and I remember Philly McMahon clearing a ball off the line with a few minutes left and we were a bit relieved, but we had a good basis from that game onwards."
It didn't bring them all the way that season, but a year on they reached their Holy Grail. There was more to it than one game, but conceding five goals against Meath certainly helped them focus their minds.
Cahill retired last winter with his All-Ireland medal the reward for his years of service.
Now, he watches Jim Gavin's team tear their way through Leinster, shooting the lights out as they go. The bookies are offering nine points as the spread, the forwards are out and out scorers and the Hill is singing. There are echoes of the days of Paul Caffrey's team, and Cahill admits he sees the dangers lurking in August.
"It is somewhat refreshing to see one of the top teams going all out like that, but there would be a small bit of concern that when you get to the business end of the season and it's knockout games and you're coming up against possibly a Kerry forward line or the Donegal full-forward line of Paddy McBrearty, Michael Murphy and Colm McFadden – the guys could be a small bit exposed," he said.
"I've played in the full-back line for Dublin and it can be a difficult place to play when teams might be playing a two-man full-forward line and there is no cover there, because one slip and the opposition is guaranteed a goal chance.
"Croke Park is such a big pitch, it really is unforgiving and there is no hiding place. If teams are getting good, direct ball into the full-forward line there is not much a player can do. It doesn't matter who you are, how good a man-marker you are.
"It is up to guys up the pitch, around the middle third to work hard and try and disrupt the ball coming in, put as much pressure on the kicks so that they are not pin-point accurate.
"It is not Dublin's fault that they are winning their games by 16 points, but from their point of view and Jim Gavin's point of view, they will want to be tested as much as possible. Over the last few weeks it was probably the A versus B training matches that have been competitive and not what they have had to deal with in Croke Park.
"Hopefully Meath can put it up to Dublin and give them a good, close game because for some of the new lads coming in it probably seems too easy and there is a possibility that you will get caught in the knockout and, all of a sudden, your year is over."
Cahill learned that lesson the hard way and is hoping his successors and former team-mates in blue haven't forgotten it this summer as it moves towards the business end.