Tuesday 15 October 2019

Martin Breheny: 'East-West: A tale of two very different rivalries'

It's Dublin v Meath and Galway v Mayo in pre-season action this weekend but only the western duel is likely to develop into something significant as the year progresses

Galway’s Sean Andy Ó’Ceallaigh battles for the ball with Mayo’s Andy Moran during last year’s Connacht SFC clash between the two countieshigher. Photo: Eóin Noonan/Sportsfile
Galway’s Sean Andy Ó’Ceallaigh battles for the ball with Mayo’s Andy Moran during last year’s Connacht SFC clash between the two countieshigher. Photo: Eóin Noonan/Sportsfile
Martin Breheny

Martin Breheny

Two great rivalries, one west, one east, one still as intense as ever, the other a mere silhouette of what it used to be.

Dublin v Meath in Parnell Park tonight and Galway v Mayo in Tuam Stadium tomorrow signal the acceleration of the pre-season action towards the start of the Allianz League in two weeks' time, but that's where the comparison ends.

Galway and Mayo see themselves among the small number of teams with a realistic chance of unseating Dublin, who have Meath in the tightest hold since the counties first met in 1894.

Dublin are odds-on favourites to create history by becoming the first county to win the All-Ireland five-in-a-row while Meath have dropped to joint 12th fancies with Cavan and Tipperary. The divergence in the fortunes of Dublin and Meath is seriously damaging for the GAA, in general, and Leinster in particular, at a time when the province have no fewer than eight counties in Divisions 3 and 4.

It's far healthier out west, with Galway, Mayo and Roscommon all in Division 1. And while Galway are current champions, there's little between them and the other pair, even if Mayo haven't won the provincial title since 2015.

It was their fifth successive win, the first four having been presided over by James Horan who is back in charge. He has greater targets than the FBD League but since it's the first chance he gets to disrupt Galway's three-season dominance, he will be very anxious to make a make a statement of intent tomorrow.

Dubs v Royals : A lost rivalry

Four years ago this month, the start of the Meath-Dublin O'Byrne Cup semi-final had to be delayed for ten minutes as latecomers swarmed around the Páirc Tailteann's entrances. By the time everyone got in, almost 8,000 people were in place for a game which Dublin won by two points after Meath recovered from a nine-point deficit in the second half to draw level in stoppage time.

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The momentum appeared to be with them but Dublin held their nerve and points by Eoghan O'Gara and Philip Ryan nudged them home. O'Gara wasn't the only heavy-hitter on a Dublin team beginning the recovery process after the surprising defeat by Donegal in the previous year's All-Ireland semi-final.

Jonny Cooper, Rory O'Carroll, John Small, Dean Rock, Kevin McManamon, Michael Fitzsimons, Michael Darragh Macauley, Jack McCaffrey, Cormac Costello, Denis Bastick, Darren Daly were all aboard too. A week later, Dublin, who were again well-armed with heavy artillery, beat Kildare in extra-time in the final. Earlier on, Dublin had been well-tested by Laois, winning by a point.

Granted, it was January football, but Laois, Meath and Kildare all took encouragement from coming so close to strong Dublin teams. Perhaps Jim Gavin's men weren't as far ahead of the chasing pack in Leinster as everyone thought.

Mirages

It turned out to be the ultimate in sporting mirages. Four years on, the rest of Leinster feel so inadequate that they are prepared to bow to Dublin's superiority, even in the structure of a pre-season competition.

While the ten other contenders battled it out, pre- and post-Christmas, for three O'Byrne Cup semi-final places, Dublin were waved through. They had an exotic holiday to enjoy, which probably cost as much as many counties will spend on the preparation of their teams for the entire year. If the rest of Leinster insisted on Dublin's participation in the early stages of the O'Byrne Cup, they would have fielded a development squad, overseen by a stand-in manager.

They even won the O'Byrne Cup with a third-string side, managed by Paul Clarke, two years ago.

It remains to be seen how many front-liners Gavin will use against Meath tonight for what will be Dublin's first game of the season, but irrespective of what team he plays and how they fare, the sad reality is that the rivalry between the counties has never been as lopsided.

At the beginning of the Millennium, it was 57-43 per cent in Dublin's favour from their previous 84 league and championship games with Meath. Since 2000, they have met 12 times, with the Dubs winning nine to Meath's two and one draw.

Meath's wins were in the 2001 Leinster final, at a time when they were a major force and the 2010 Leinster semi-final, when a freakish second-half goal splurge demolished Dublin.

Circumstances have altered since then, with Dublin enjoying the many fruits harvested by their best-ever squad, while Meath have been unable to escape from a deep depression. Of course, Dublin's awesome strength has flattened more than Meath, but that still doesn't explain how the Royals have fallen so far behind them.

Judging them by Dublin's current standards avoids the more important question of why they have been unable to do better at another level.

Incredibly, Meath haven't been in Division 1 for 13 years, which is a shocking indictment of a county that won four All-Ireland, eight Leinster and three Allianz League titles between 1986 and 2001. Nineteen counties have featured in Division 1 since Meath were last there in 2006, a season when they were relegated with Wexford.

The changed nature of one of football's great rivalries is a massive loss. The four-match Leinster first round championship saga between the counties in 1991, culminating in a game which drew a sell-out crowd to Croke Park (Meath 2-10 Dublin 0-15) on a glorious Saturday afternoon in July 1991, is still regarded as one the major drivers in taking Gaelic Games into a higher interest sphere at a time when the exploits of the Republic of Ireland soccer team over the three previous years had attracted a new audience.

Now, it's all very different in a once-great struggle for dominance where one of the contestants has lost its way.

Battle lines drawn on the western front

When Mayo beat Galway in the 2015 Connacht semi-final in Pearse Stadium in what was their fifth successive championship win over the Tribesmen, nobody could have foreseen how the dynamic between them was heading for a dramatic swing.

Since then, Galway have beaten Mayo five times (three championship, one Allianz League and one FBD League), a run they will seek to extend in Tuam tomorrow.

The fact that, despite their failures in the last three Connacht Championships, Mayo came much closer to winning the All-Ireland title than Galway adds another dimension to a rivalry where intrigue levels will rise this year.

Opinion is divided in Mayo on whether James Horan's appointment as manager is a stroke of genius or an easy cop-out after the messy manner in which Stephen Rochford's interest in continuing for a fourth year unravelled.

Horan's supporters regard it as a shrewd decision to recall him, on the basis that he took Mayo close to All-Ireland glory before and can now hitch that experience to a fresh approach. Question is - how fresh will be it be? Mayo have a higher age profile among their oldest ten players than any other county and if they didn't succeed in steering the squad to an All-Ireland title up to now, why should it any different in 2019?

Of course, it's easy to say that Horan should opt for a clean-out, replacing many of the older players with young guns but how realistic is that?

Even critics of Rochford's approach weren't arguing that he overlooked lots of young talent. Granted, there will always be differences of opinion over individual players in any county, but it still remains a fact that the only way to force out the incumbents is to perform consistently better than them. That hasn't been the case in Mayo and unless there's a significant change this year, it's impossible to see them ending the long drought.

Mayo's pursuit of All-Ireland success has been so concentrated that their failure in the last three Connacht Championships hasn't attracted anything like the level of scrutiny that would have been the case further back.

Electrify

Equally, Galway's three successive championship wins over Mayo - the first time they achieved it since 1982-'83-'84 - didn't electrify their supporters because of subsequent failures in Croke Park.

Galway's rise last year saw them lose only three of 15 league and championship games (one of which they didn't need to win, having already reached the All-Ireland semi-final), yet doubts remain.

The second-half implosion against Dublin in the semi-final was reminiscent of their worst Croke Park days. Unlike the league final, when they challenged Dublin all the way, they melted after half-time in the semi-final. Ominously, they appeared to lose heart once Dublin opened up and despite Shane Walsh's late goal, the final whistle was a welcome sound for them.

It will be interesting to see how Galway evolve this year. Their defensive game improved immeasurably last year (up to their last two games), but with so many exciting forwards in the squad the system needs to be more flexible to give them a chance to flourish, just as Dublin do when they are in possession.

Tomorrow's game won't present the full picture of what lies ahead for Galway or Mayo, but it will certainly offer shades of what to expect.

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