Sunday 17 December 2017

New generation, same old rivalry

Martin Breheny

Martin Breheny

AT some stage in tomorrow's Leinster final, tempers will boil over.

Pat Gilroy, who is already without Diarmuid Connolly due to suspension, and Seamus McEnaney will have warned their players about the need to be ultra-disciplined, but the ingredients are there for a combustible mix so there's a limit to what the managers can control from the sideline.

Will referee Marty Duffy become a central figure in the game? It would be a pity if he had to, but it's highly probable that he faces a busy afternoon.

You can expect this final to start with a fearsome scramble for physical dominance. That will establish the tone for the rest of the day, either settling into a hard, but manageable routine, or degenerating into something that will make headlines beyond Monday morning.

Hopefully, the former will prevail but with the stakes so high, the referee and his six officials will need to be vigilant as Dublin and Meath renew acquaintance on Leinster's big day.

The background is giving their latest engagement a sharper edge than usual. It's 11 years since they last met in a provincial final, the longest gap since 1923-55; it's their first meeting since Meath put five goals past Dublin in the Leinster semi-final two years ago; and Dublin are reigning All-Ireland champions.


And then there's the Dublin v Meath factor. As the attendance and revenue figures show, it's the top-drawing duel in the GAA and there's evidence to suggest that it's also the most intense.

It's a conflict based on primeval instincts, one where the desire to physically dominate opponents is stronger than in other great local rivalries such as Cork v Kerry and Galway v Mayo.

Liam Hayes wrote about the feeling he experienced after Meath had beaten Dublin in the final act of the dramatic four-match saga in the 1991 Leinster championship.

"There are good reasons why we managed to cling to Dublin and finally beat them. We knew what it was like to beat Dublin. We hate losing to them. We hate them. We believe they dislike us too and we honestly believe they're not good enough to beat us."

In his book, Colm O'Rourke was more circumspect in his assessment of Dublin-Meath relationship.

"Every one of those championship games was a real test of human character, during which the best and the most base elements of a man were exposed. Every game produced heroes, and some produced a villain or two, but they became the yardstick by which to judge any player who pulled on a green and gold shirt."

He also described running out onto Croke Park for a Dublin v Meath Leinster final as "the best experience of my football life".

"It was at once invigorating and frightening. Then there was the prospect of facing up to Hill 16. No matter how much you try to downplay the experience, it's intimidating."

In his book, John O'Leary, who played 17 championship games against Meath, described the rivalry as "the greatest in the country". He supported that view by claiming that more neutrals attend Dublin v Meath than any other game in the championship, with the exception of All-Ireland finals.

"Our games were always bruising and tough and sometimes spilled over the top, but once they were finished, there was no whinging or complaining -- that would have been seen as a sign of weakness, the last thing Dublin or Meath ever wanted to concede to the other," he wrote.

Much has changed since the gritty days of the 1970s, '80s and '90s when Gaelic football was a much more robust game. To an extent then, Dublin and Meath are meeting for the first time in a Leinster final under the much more stringent application of rules which apply nowadays. There are many who believe that in their understandable zeal to get rid of the 'hard-man' culture, rulemakers have gone too far.

There are plenty of examples to support that view, one of the more recent being the dismissal of Kildare midfielder Daryl Flynn against Meath in the Leinster semi-final. He was sent off on a second yellow, which was just about warranted, but he was unlucky to have picked up the first.

Neither incident would have earned a booking in the days when Dublin and Meath tore into each other with unrelenting determination. So much so that former world super-middleweight boxing champion Stephen Collins remarked during the fourth game of the '91 epic that his sport was safer, on the basis that he could always see where the punches were coming from.

Yet, Dublin and Meath players saw their many clashes as examples of sport at its rawest where, whatever else happened, honesty was the underlying theme. Suffice to say nobody tried to con the referee into taking action against an opponent by feigning injury, a growing malignancy in the modern game across the country.

"They were tough games, but there was nothing dirty or malicious about them. They were manly affairs," wrote O'Leary.

O'Rourke concurred. "When Meath were beating Dublin there was hate in the comments directed towards a few Meath players, not hate in the sense of its ordinary meaning. It was a football reaction and, in general, the particular emotion lasted for just the length of the game and after it the same Dubs would be quite happy to sit down and have a pint with you," wrote O'Rourke.

Gilroy has first-hand experience of the Leinster final experience as a player against Meath, having played in '94, and will know that however driven the Royals might be in earlier rounds, they bring something altogether more forceful to their game in finals.

McEnaney's approach to football is ideally suited to the traditional Meath philosophy, so their game plan will involve a powerful physical dimension. Whether Meath have the players capable of imposing themselves on the opposition is, however, a moot point.

Still, this is Meath v Dublin in a Leinster final and, as history shows, whichever side establishes physical dominance will be putting down an important marker.

Superiority in the Dublin-Meath rivalry has tended to go in cycles since Kevin Heffernan's arrival as Dublin boss in late 1973. Dublin did much better than Meath for the next decade; Meath took the reins in 1986 and, with the exception of '89, retained control until the end of 1991. Dublin took charge in 1993, '94 and '95 before Meath regained the upper hand in '96 and held it up to their last clash in 2001. Since then, their only championship win against Dublin came in 2010.

Meanwhile, Dublin go into the game as All-Ireland champions and with their confidence levels brimming. Even without the rich history of rivalry between the counties, the combination of emotions spinning through both camps would be enough to coax the blue and green hordes to Croke Park. With it, there's a big appeal for neutrals too.

Irish Independent

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