Saturday 20 January 2018

Peter Canavan: Meath-Tyrone is a rivalry dimmed but not diluted

Peter Canavan and Darren Fay in action during the All-Ireland SFC semi-final of 1996 SPORTSFILE
Peter Canavan and Darren Fay in action during the All-Ireland SFC semi-final of 1996 SPORTSFILE
Jamie Clarke has an intelligent approach to the game

Peter Canavan

Whenever Tyrone fans talk about games, the 1996 All-Ireland semi-final defeat to Meath is a much-discussed topic.

Games with blood and bandages tend to have that effect, but the curious thing about it was that there had been absolutely no animosity between the sides before that day.

The basis for Meath's game-plan originated in a challenge game we played in Brewster Park earlier that summer, around late May.

We destroyed Meath that evening, playing a nice fast brand of football. I would have no doubt that following that game, Meath vowed that if they ever played us again, they could not stand off us and let us play football.

For some of our men it may have lowered their guard and their opinion of where Meath football was at. The fact was that Meath were on a training weekend. The chances are that they were out the night before.

Back in the '90s when you went away for a training weekend, inevitably that's what it was: a chance to get together and have a bit of craic.

I had been carrying a back injury for a number of months, and ironically Sean Boylan actually treated me after the game. He is a man I hold in regard despite the fact that some blame was laid at his door for what happened in the semi-final that summer.

People ask was it pre-planned by Sean Boylan? In my opinion absolutely not. That's not his style.

I think the players came to the realisation themselves that they were physically stronger and to win the game they had to play to their strengths. There is no doubt that in a number of cases they overstepped the line.


I was on the receiving end of a late shoulder charge from John McDermott.

It had happened a couple of times that year in the Ulster Championship against Derry. In the process of kicking the ball, Brian McGilligan clattered into me, but I spun off him, bounced up and avoided injury.

But whenever Meath players hit a Tyrone man, legally or otherwise, there were consequences. I was hit late, was put down and tore my ankle ligaments. Brian Dooher and Ciaran McBride both required stitches and bandaging.

From our point of view there was a naivety as to what was going on. Maybe there should have been more done about it then and there. But there was no point crying about it afterwards.

We were the first team to retain Ulster in 20 years. The mood in the county was that Dublin were beaten and this was a great chance to win an All-Ireland.

That defeat put us back years, more so than the All-Ireland defeat the year before.

As a group of players we felt battered and bruised. It hurt us and the psychological wounds took years to heal. There was a feeling that we were not able to stand up for ourselves.

From the final the year before, it was easy to apportion blame on external factors, with referee Paddy Russell getting a few calls wrong and believing that Dublin 'needed' to win an All-Ireland.

The recent spat between Art McRory and Gerry McEntee shows you the depth of feeling and how controversial the game is nearly 20 years on. People are still aggrieved by it.

I don't believe Sean Boylan would have had much bother motivating his team that day. The emphasis would have been on physicality, but do I believe he went out giving instructions to take men out of the game? No.

Do I believe that players were targeted? Of course. But in the sense that in any game you play, there are players you look at, you know they are the danger men and you have to cut out their threat.

A lot of things happen on the pitch and ultimately it is the players who are responsible.

I have done things on the pitch that I regret doing, but I can't say I was ever told by a manager to do them.

Mickey Harte didn't change Ryan McMenamin. He never told anyone to go out and talk into somebody's ear, yet people claim it is a policy coming from the management.

Tipperary were unhappy with a Tyrone player after this year's All-Ireland U-21 final and they blamed the management for it!

A lot of people get confused and carried away with the notion that when things happen on the pitch, they are instructed. The fact of the matter is that players do things on the spur of the moment, as they see things themselves.

As for today's game, the latter-day Meath and Tyrone teams now both possess the skilful players that they once had years ago, but both sides appear to lack that cutting edge and toughness that brought them All-Ireland titles.

When I was manager of Fermanagh, we played Meath in the final regulation game in Division 3 to decide who would go up. We cut through their defence time and time again and weren't able to capitalise on our scoring chances.

Two years on, their game-plan hasn't changed much in that they line up orthodox and leave themselves open. They play a traditional kickpassing style, with the emphasis on getting the ball in early.

Tyrone will want to attack Meath. Their weakness is in their defence and if they sit back and defend in numbers, they are going to make it easy for Meath to do the same.

The dilemma for Meath in all of this is that it is so late in the year, indeed, so late in their regime of Mick O'Dowd, to be making wholesale changes.

The fact is that for 20 minutes against Westmeath they blew them away and played some great football. On their day, they are capable of playing that. They are also capable of capitulating when the pressure is on them.

If Tyrone can withstand Meath coming at them for the first 15 minutes and play an attacking game, I think they have the personnel up front to really hurt them.

A weekend litmus test for Ulster's strength

I suppose we will soon know how strong we are in the province we claim as the most competitive, with four games involving Ulster teams playing at home over the weekend.

Armagh will be disappointed the way they threw in the towel against Donegal. It was untypical of their manager's fighting spirit when he played and what everybody expects of them.

We hope that they haven't unleashed the cannons too early against Dublin in the recent challenge match when there were fireworks.

Armagh have yet to find the perfect foil for Jamie Clarke. James O'Donoghue and the Gooch are able to feed off Kieran Donaghy, Armagh should try and find someone to do this as Clarke shouldn't have to go looking for his own ball all the time.

With his game intelligence, he would be able to score more goals as a result.

Derry answered serious questions about themselves against Donegal when they put up a very spirited performance.

It appears in recent years that once Derry went out of the Ulster Championship, the club becomes more important, and the effort in the qualifiers last year was embarrassing. But they should have enough against Wexford.

I don't think Fermanagh players will be caught up with their easy victory over Antrim.

They want to be playing Championship football until August and they now have a great opportunity with a home draw in Brewster Park. They have a fantastic record there.

No doubt they will analyse the Sligo-Roscommon game in the Connacht Championship where the long diagonal ball caused serious problems for the Rossies defence. The Rossies also cannot afford to foul Fermanagh from anywhere within 50 metres.

All the games will be tough, tight affairs, but I would expect all the Ulster teams to come through.

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