Sunday 8 December 2019

'Meath's training was done in water until three weeks before the first Dublin game' - Sean Boylan recalls drama of '91

Michael Verney

Michael Verney

As Meath football manager, Sean Boylan helped guide the Royals to four All-Ireland senior titles and is widely regarded as one of the greatest GAA managers ever.

In this interview he describes some of the unusual techniques which were employed before Meath eventually saw off their arch rivals Dublin in an epic four-game saga played out before a combined attendance of 237,000 in Croke Park.

MV: Meath were an ageing team, what did you do to rejuvenate them after losing the All-Ireland final to Cork in 1990?

SB: Did we think we were too old? No, but we did think the legs were tired. And that's why we ended up doing all the training in water. Sonia O'Sullivan and Gerry O'Reilly from Dunboyne, who had run in the Olympics as well, were in Atlanta, Georgia and got these buoyancy aids for me for the team. 27 of them cost £3,500.

We had to train in water because their joints were perfect and the ligaments were fine, but their muscles were tired. So training in water re-energised them. We started doing that training in November 1990. Gerry McEntee had been away and I always remember him coming home and I brought him out to training one night.

After we left Gormanstown he said 'How are you going to face the people of Meath next year when you're beaten in the first-round of Leinster and people ask how training was going and you have to say ye were f***ing swimming?!' But you had to have a certain belief in yourself, and our players always had that belief in themselves.

Suddenly they got re-energised. Up until three weeks before the first round against Dublin, all of our training was done in water.

I had gotten the idea because I'd read about Joan Benoit who won the gold medal in the women's marathon at the Los Angeles Olympics. Six weeks before that she had had an operation on our knee and did all her training in water.

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It was only 11 days before the race that she put her foot on the track for the first time, and she won the gold. At that point my thinking was that every year you had to learn something different. It wasn't about gaining a new edge, it was just about getting yourself right.

MV: You decided to take the lads away to Scotland before the fourth game, where did that idea come from and how important was it in helping to get over the line?

SB: After the first match the county board said to me do you want to take the players away anywhere and I said we were fine. I was asked again after the second match but said no again. But after the third one I went around to all the wives and girlfriends of the players and said, 'Listen, if I want to do something with the lads, would you mind?'

They were like, 'Sean, whatever it takes to beat the Dubs.' Anyway, I got it into my head that we'd go to Scotland. Myself and our sponsor Noel Keating (Kepak), God rest him, went across. David Beggy was working all over Scotland at the time and picked us up in a souped up Escort and Noel, who was used to a big Merc, had his knees up on the windscreen.

Jinksy (David Beggy) was flying down the roads and smoking, Jesus, would you stop! Anyhow, we head up towards Loch Lomond and came to a little village called Drymen and stopped to get a cup of tea in a place called the Buchanan Arms. After five minutes, I said this is the place. Ironically it was where Billy Connolly is from.

So we talked to the people and made the arrangements and came home and got the approval from the County Board. So we hired a plane and all flew over on the Friday. It had been non-stop between training, work, minding injuries and everything, so the very first night we had a five-course meal and a great chat afterwards and a bit of music and so on. 

We had to take the tension out of it, because at that stage there was very little you could learn about Dublin. There's nothing like the anxiety of the moment to soak away your energy and half the training I wanted to do over there was to simply absorb that tension.

The wise lads knew that the next day we'd be working, and we did.

We went for a training session the next morning and then afterwards some of them went clay-pigeon shooting and some of them went out to Loch Lomond on boats. Afterwards we had a bite to eat, looked at a video, and had a chat amongst ourselves.

The next morning was the Sunday morning and for the next 40 minutes the only thing we did was move the ball just like we did at the end of the fourth match against Dublin.

Up and down, up and down the field. So for Kevin Foley to find himself right up at the Hill end and be looking for the ball, that's exactly what we had worked on in Scotland so in his head it was the most natural thing in the world. I am in no doubt but that we wouldn't have beaten Dublin were it not for that trip to Scotland. No question in the world.


MV: Dublin were the better team through the series but ye managed to hang in there, how did you steel your players?

SB: I suppose it's just knowing there's always time, things can change, and being ready for it. I always remember calling over Liam Hayes when Keith Barr was taking that penalty in the fourth match and telling him, 'Even if they score this, ye can still win it. Start throwing the ball around like you did in Scotland last weekend.'

Then in the last seven or eight minutes, the way they played was just magic. And we still only won it by a point. But even for Jinksy to have the balls to have a go and put it over, he could have gone for the safe option. For Kevin Foley to score that goal...I remember poor Paddy Hickey interviewing him afterwards and asking him upside down and inside out about other scores and how this compared to them.

Kevin said he never scored for Meath. Paddy asked him about any he'd scored for his club, and Kevin said he'd never scored for his club. Paddy asked him about any he'd scored for his school, and Kevin said, 'Paddy, you're standing on my towel.' Kevin was just of a really quiet disposition.

His father was born in the Argentine, and he had that Kempes look about him. That challenging look. He was a vet, and I remember one time he got knocked out against Armagh. I rang up the next day to see how he was and he was after doing a cesarean down in Wexford at eight the following morning. That's the sort of character he was.

MV: What were your emotions like at the final whistle of the fourth game?

SB: When Jinksy got that ball, there was never a doubt in my head but that he was going to put it over the bar. The emotions were extraordinary because it was like the end of a season. No matter what you did you were never going to hit the same highlight, and yet you were still involved in trying to win a Leinster title.

MV: After creating GAA history together over the course of those four epic games, was there any sympathy for the vanquished Dubs?

SB: Oh, stop, yeah, absolutely. I was gutted for them. Because it could so easily have been the other way. There were no winners or losers really. Gaelic won in a big way. It was nearly incidental which team won on the scoreboard.

MV: How much did that series of games change the way the GAA was operated? Many called it a watershed moment?

SB: Things were never the same again. Imagine a big Championship match on a Saturday?! Years ago people would have been saying, 'Ah Jaysus lads, there's cows to be milked!' In Gaelic up until then it always had to be Sunday afternoon, but so many things were opened from there. It got rid of the attitude of, 'You can't do this or you can't do that.'

Afterwards it became more like, 'How can we do this or that?' Nowadays young players are sponges for information in a way they were not before.  And people who were never interested in the game were now suddenly fascinated with it. I think it was the third match that Jack Charlton and Maurice Setters walked down Clonliffe Road on their way to the match.

It was incredible. That's how much it captured the imagination.

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