Tuesday 22 January 2019

How the mighty have fallen - What's going wrong in Meath, Down and Cork where there is such a rich football tradition?


Donal Keogan of Meath in action against Cork’s Sean White during the recent Allianz Football League encounter at Páirc Tailteann - both teams have struggled in Division 2 this season. Photo: Oliver McVeigh/Sportsfile
Donal Keogan of Meath in action against Cork’s Sean White during the recent Allianz Football League encounter at Páirc Tailteann - both teams have struggled in Division 2 this season. Photo: Oliver McVeigh/Sportsfile
Martin Breheny

Martin Breheny

It wasn't meant to be like this for Meath, Cork and Down, counties whose history inter-linked in a fascinating triangle from the late 1980s until 2010.

They won nine All-Ireland titles between them in that period, with Meath (four) beating Cork three times in finals, Cork beating Meath and Down in two of their three successes and Down beating Meath in 1991 and following up with a win over Dublin in 1994.

As is always the case when counties are going well, Meath, Cork and Down could never envisage a time of want but it crept up slowly and surreptitiously. Meath's decline set in after their heavy defeat by Galway in the 2001 All-Ireland final and, as the decade went on, they slipped out of Division 1.

They haven't been back there since 2006 and are now in danger of dropping into Division 3. Defeat by Down tomorrow would seal their fate, just as a loss for the Mourne men would leave them favourites for the drop.

Cork are in no-man's land, almost certainly safe from relegation but too far back to challenge for promotion.

It's a different world from when Cork and Down met in the 2010 All-Ireland final, a game the Rebels won by a point. So why has it gone so badly wrong for Cork and Meath, who are joint-fourth on the All-Ireland table with seven titles, and Down who are joint-fifth with Cavan and Wexford on five titles?

It's a question that has baffled supporters in all three counties, leaving them pining for the good old days. We enlisted the help of former stars, Martin O'Connell, Tony Davis and Liam Austin in an attempt to find out what's the latest state of play in the land of fallen giants.

* * * * *

Martin O'Connell remembers the time when the opposition feared Meath and they themselves feared no one, days when the green jersey was an emblem for success.

And even when the Royals didn't win, there was always a defiance about them that others envied and admired in equal measure. O'Connell was a major figure in that golden era, his career taking him to the ultimate peak when he was selected at left half-back on the Team of the Millennium.

All has changed now. O'Connell will head for Páirc Tailteann tomorrow hoping for the best but fearing the worst in the clash with Down. A year ago, Meath came close to being promoted to Division 1, creating an impression, to outsiders at least, that something was stirring.

Insiders were more pessimistic. They didn't believe that the raw material was there to build a side capable of moving into the top eight and nothing has happened since to make them change their minds.

"Club football is poor and when that's the case the county team has to suffer. I watch a lot of club games and I don't see fellas standing out. You should be able to spot a county player without knowing him but that's not the case in Meath. That's part of the problem," says O'Connell.

The low standard of Meath club football is highlighted at provincial level where they haven't won a Leinster title since 2002 (Dunshaughlin) or been in a final since 2004 (Skryne).

Underage county success has been elusive too. Meath's last U-21 Leinster title was won in 2001, while the last provincial minor triumph was in 2008. Combine the club and underage failures and it's not difficult to see the depth of Meath's predicament. The question is: why has it happened? Why has a county that did so well between 1986 and 2001 lost its way?

"There's no easy answer to that. And anyway, there's not much digging into the past. It's about where we are now and how we intend to get out of it," says O'Connell.

There are some encouraging signs. Meath won the Leinster U-17 title last year and have done reasonably well at minor level in recent seasons. There are up to 20 coaches working in the county and they have better fundraising capabilities than most others.

However, it all needs to be properly coordinated, an area where O'Connell, who was in the backroom team with the U-17s last year, has strong views.

"Those lads have been given a programme but there needs to be more done than that. They need to be kept together, made to feel they are part of a county set-up and worked with all the way.

"It's all very fine having development squads for younger teams but lads around the 18-year mark need to be worked with even more. That's the time you can lose them or turn them into players who might make county seniors."

Like all his Meath contemporaries, it dismays O'Connell to see Dublin pull so far ahead without any backlash by the men in green.

"The teams I played with are cringing at what they see. We just wouldn't let it happen. Having said that, the truth is that we don't have the players to match Dublin. It's sad but true."

* * * * *

Tony Davis is surprised when people ask him why Cork aren't doing better than having their traditional position as Munster's joint super-power challenged by Tipperary and Clare while also being outside the Division 2 promotion zone with one round of games to be completed.

"There's no mystery. Where we are is a genuine barometer of the talent that's available in the county at present. We're into our third management in three or four years and they all can't be getting it wrong. They're working with what's there and right now it's not good enough to challenge for an All-Ireland," he says.

The question that's baffling observers is why the talent supply isn't all that strong in such a big county. Various theories abound, some more complicated than others, but as far as Davis is concerned, it comes down essentially to a shortage of top-class forwards.

"There's an element of luck about that. You can have all the development squads and support structures you like but if the natural talent isn't there to start with, you have a problem. Teams that are capable of challenging for an All-Ireland always have three or four excellent forwards. We have one or two but not enough.

"People talk about Dublin and how good they are but there's an element of luck in that so many great players have come along at the same time. It wasn't development squads or anything else that made Con O'Callaghan the player he is. He's a freak of nature and he's surrounded by so many other good players that Dublin are spoilt for choice. It won't last though - it never does anywhere," says Davis.

He believes that Cork football is suffering because of the strength of hurling in the county and points to Shane Kingston and Alan Cadogan as two players who would be major assets in big ball land.

The general view after Cork won the 2010 All-Ireland title was that ending the long wait would liberate them and pave the way for more glory. It didn't happen and, eight years later, nobody is mentioning them as potential All-Ireland winners.

"Long spells without winning anything have happened before in Cork. They happen in the likes of Meath and Galway too, even although all three are at the top end of the All-Ireland winning title. It's hard to know why that's the case but it is.

"People can let on they know why Cork are not doing better but they don't in reality. You play with what you have and at the moment Cork just don't have enough excellent footballers. I can see them improving but it will take time."

* * * * *

Liam Austin longs for the days when football was played as an instinctive game where individual battles were the lifeblood of the game.

"It was a big part of the reasons players played the game and why the public went to watch them. Now it's programmed and structured down to the last detail. It's almost as if it's being played by robots," he says.


He suspects that's part of the reason why Down have slipped out of the fast lane and are now at risk of dropping to Division 3.

"I see club games where it's hard to pick out a county player. It's all about systems and structures, factory-football - there's hardly any room for individual skill. And when that's stifled, it's very hard for players to come through and reach county standard. I wouldn't like to be playing the game now. And look at a player like Mickey Linden, one of the best we ever had, but how would he fit in nowadays?

"Individual skill is being squeezed out. The spontaneity and the fun isn't there to anything like the same degree. Playing inter-county seems like a chore nowadays which it should never be. How many guys can kick the ball properly? It's a sad reflection of where the game has gone," he says.

Down would always have been renowned for their swashbuckling style but, like everyone else, have got sucked into the robotic approach which runs counter to their nature. And with the standard not very high outside the top two or three clubs, it's all combining to leave them well down the pecking order.

"I was brought up on the memories of the 1960s team and then we had the 1991 and 1994 All-Ireland wins but that's a long time ago. And the more those days fade into history the harder it will be to make a comeback. Tradition is fine but it has to be nourished quite regularly too. We're not capable of doing that in Down at the moment," says Austin.

Irish Independent

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