Friday 19 January 2018

Odds are justifiably stacked against my county, buta bit of pride in the jersey today could go a long way

Meath's best bet of upsetting the Dubs is to make it a battle

Colm O'Rourke

Colm O'Rourke

The first Leinster final between Meath and Dublin I attended was in 1974, the start of the modern era of Dublin football. Those were the days when Con Houlihan gave a unique insight into life, sport and we got regular updates on how the ducks on the Canal were doing. Con was an environmentalist long before the term was invented.

Subsequently, I was very lucky to play in 10 Leinster finals with Meath. One of the great disappointments of life is how advancing years prevent me from playing football, especially on days like this.

As time went by you appreciated them more. Oscar Wilde's comment springs to mind about youth being wasted on the young.

Anyway, in all the Leinster finals since 1974 there has never been one where the odds are so heavily stacked in favour of one team. Most finals have been fairly competitive. Dublin's win in 1995 by 10 points sent me out to grass, but the margin of that victory came a bit out of the blue, if you pardon the expression.

The expectation today, at least going by the the bookies, is that Dublin win will be by a similar margin. It does look as if they have all their ducks in a row at the moment.

As Meath have gone into a largely self-inflicted tailspin over the last decade, the competition to Dublin in Leinster has more or less evaporated. They are now going for nine titles in the last ten years – just one of the reasons why provincial councils should be coming up with ideas on how to make the championship better, but unfortunately self-interest prevails.

Especially so when Dublin are involved, they are the financial engine for Leinster and the GAA in general but even at that the golden goose could be better used for the benefit of Dublin GAA and the rest of the country.

Those sort of problems are not going to be solved any day soon as there is little will to do so from the people who count and so to a match in the great field by the canal. For 15 years or so from the mid-1980s, Meath regarded it as their own and Seán Boylan's various teams won eight in that period.

That may be more of a burden to the present generation than a help – tradition is a great thing but there is nothing worse for a player than hearing the great deeds of the past when things are not going well in the present.

Of course the simple solution is for players to make their own history, create their own tradition and render discussions on the past redundant. That is badly needed now.

Teenagers in Meath need new heroes to motivate them, some just to play football and for others to make the necessary sacrifices to be top-class players.

The progress made so far this year has been rapid. Promotion in the league and two championship wins. That is all anyone could have hoped for. Improvement from now on will be harder and slower with many setbacks. As I have said on many occasions before, this project is at least a five-year one. The good thing is that most people who know Meath football understand that and the present management can get on with their job without the weight of unrealistic expectations.

There is no great oasis of talent around the county so the improvement must come individually and collectively over the next few years from many of the players who are involved today.

There is talent there too. Patrick O'Rourke is an excellent goalkeeper, Kevin Reilly and Brian Menton are leaders at the back, Donal Keogan is a great man-marker, Graham Reilly has style and class and no players will work harder for their team than Stephen Bray, Seamus Kenny and Brian Meade. Eamon Wallace has real pace, while Michael Newman gave an exhibition of frees against Wexford. That is just a sample of what Meath have to offer, it is a base for the future.

On the other side is a Dublin team transformed on Jim Gavin's watch. Under Pat Gilroy, Dublin were cautious, the half-backs played as backs and there was less of the flamboyant attacking play that is tearing many teams apart at present.

Now it appears that the dogs of war have been let loose to wreak havoc, the speed of attack and the number of goal chances created against Kildare was startling. Can this be true? Are the Dubs that good that they will just blow all opposition out of the water?

Now all that glitters is not necessarily gold and Jim Gavin knows all he will be judged on is the All-Ireland and, as the old boxer said to the new flash kid on the block, 'you ain't won nothing yet son'. Not exactly true as Dublin have won the league but there were enough warning signs against Tyrone in that game in April to stop everyone involved with the team losing the run of themselves.

It does appear that Dublin have brought speed, athleticism and football talent to a new level. Cian O'Sullivan, James McCarthy, Jack McCaffrey move over the ground like some of the great Kenyan athletes and none of them presumably ran barefooted to school.

The spine of the defence with Ger Brennan and Rory O'Carroll remain in place. Both are old-style defenders and will give their men loads if they get away with it so it is up to the forwards to stop it early on, the methods of doing so are not contained in the official guide to football.

The biggest problem for Meath will be at the other end. How are they going to stop Dublin marauding straight down the middle? Will there be a sweeper or sweepers? Mickey Burke is chosen at centre-back and he will need a haircut, a shave and a lot of help from his friends or he could be overrun.

And then when Paul Mannion, Bernard Brogan, Paddy Andrews and Diarmuid Connolly have inflicted degrees of damage on the scoreboard, Dublin can release Dean Rock, Kevin Nolan, Kevin McManamon, Eoghan O'Gara, Denis Bastick, Bryan Cullen, Cormac Costello, Philly McMahon and Mick Fitzsimons among others to cause more havoc. That is without Alan Brogan making an appearance.

The only good thing is that Dublin can only have 15 on at the same time but the reality is that most of these subs would get on the Meath team.

All may seem lost from a Meath point of view, but the only loss is loss of heart and it would be interesting if Meath could win a decent supply of ball around the middle third and force Dublin's defenders to defend. They may not be programmed for that.

Fast counter-attacking is their modus operandi and the weather is going to suit that style perfectly so Meath cannot afford to give the ball away around the middle of the field.

Meath must make this match into a battle. They need to work on Stephen Cluxton's kick-outs, break ball in the middle of the field, run at their defence and not concede goals. Easier said than done.

Yet the only measurement of a Meath footballer is to go to Croke Park and perform against Dublin. With that comes honour, it may not always mean victory but there is honour in defeat too. The sense of playing with pride in your club and county jersey, that is the one demand; after that the game will take you where it will. But some things are non-negotiable – individualism at the expense of the team is a no-no, so is lack of effort or heart. Even with bringing all the best qualities it probably won't be enough. There is no shame in that.

Dublin are on a different mission. They have four games to win, starting today. Their motivation is probably more internal; they certainly don't fear Meath but the main competition is within and especially from their own bench.

It means no one will take it easy at any time as even a sneeze in the dressing room with the doctor around might mean six months on the bench.

Meath have been left a long way behind by Dublin at all levels and even with Meath showing the greatest fighting spirit in the world, it looks like a clearcut Dublin win.

Irish Independent

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