Friday 15 December 2017

Rivalry on slide but Dublin v Meath can still set pulses racing

Dublin and Meath. What does it mean to you? England and Germany? Itchy and Scratchy? Enda and Richard? Ronan and Yvonne? Isner and Mahut?

Heck, what does it mean to them? A glorious battle to the death or just an internecine squabble -- housing as much significance as that gnawing resentment when your neighbour consistently refuses to bring in your empty wheelie bin?

For those of a certain vintage, the fixture verily reeks of momentous moments -- Mattie's goals; Charlie's penalty; Keith's penalty; Bealo's penalty; Foley's goal; Those 11 passes; O'Rourke's bandage; McQuillan's fumble; Byrne's fumble; Jayo's kisses.

Sadly, nostalgia ain't what it used to be. When Dublin stumbled past Meath in last year's 58th renewal of their rivalry, the initial celebratory coursing of adrenaline and alcohol throughout the respective players and supporters barely lasted beyond Monday morning.


The rest of the country could not have cared less. Where once, as in the fabled epic of '91, Dublin and Meath had flung open the doors to their sport and invited everyone inside -- Gael or not -- last year's dismal effort prompted many to politely draw the curtains.

Con Houlihan wrote in 1991 that all Gaeldom looked on agog. A generation later, they look on aghast.

Keith Barr hinted at the fixture's potential mortality last summer; Bernard Flynn went further, pronouncing the union dead and buried; Ciaran Whelan writes in webland this week that even he feared for its future.

Some reckon it's a generational thing. And yet for everyone who speaks in awe of '91 and all that, others will silently curse down the telephone when asked, in weeks such as this, to prompt a recall of that dizzy summer.

"Ah jaysus, not again," they will say. And not all will be of Dublin extraction either. "The game has changed, players have changed," insists Flynn. "Most of us are sick and tired talking about '91 and a lot of the younger players now haven't a clue who we all are anyway."

Academics with sandals will profess intensely that Dublin-Meath kickstarted the Celtic Tiger -- funny, we thought Italia '90 did that! -- but, although it may have kicked the GAA closer to modernity, it didn't grip as tightly as many like to fantasise.

Last year, we spoke to Conal Keaney in these pages and he professed a dim recollection of those events: "I'd miss Dublin matches, even some of the epics against Meath. Once I was playing I didn't mind, playing was more important for me." His first Gaelic games memory was Down against Meath in the 1991 final.

Okay, one of today's combatants claims direct lineage to 1991 through his father, but many will have been in nappies back then. The one-sided nature of recent history heightens the sense of irrelevance.

Meath haven't beaten Dublin since Croke Park was last rebuilt. Dublin hadn't beaten Meath before that since the previous time Croke Park was rebuilt.

Streaks are omnipresent, in fairness; from '74 to '84, Dublin's hegemony embraced six wins, a draw; Meath's dominance of the game in the late 80s ushered them to a swift hat-trick of titles. Since '91, the pattern has been weirdly streaky; Dublin (3), Meath (3), Dublin (4 wins, a draw).

Rivalries aren't worth much mustard if one side keeps winning.

Then throw in Leinster's miserable record in consummating Sam after the incestuous business of provincial fare is finished with; 1995 was the last time Dublin supporters supped from the Delaney and Sam Maguire Cups, for Meath, it is 1999.

In the 21st century, football has been about Tyrone v Armagh, Tyrone v Kerry, Kerry v Cork, Kerry v Armagh. Even hurling's fierce rivalries have consistently dwarfed Leinster's Lilliputian squabble.

The addition of the 'back-door' has accelerated the enervation of the fixture's once unique metabolism. The psychic energy of the fixture has been sapped by second-chance syndrome.

Meath have reached two of the last three All-Ireland semi-finals without landing a knock-out blow on the Dubs, who have managed just one in their five-year dominance of Leinster. A truly quare thing.

"I got the tail end of the real rivalry," says former Dublin player Senan Connell, "and you just got this sense that meeting Meath was the be-all and end-all of the season.

"Okay, first you had to beat them because they were your neighbours, but mainly there was no back-door. You knew if you got past them you were within touching distance of an All-Ireland final."

The elimination of that safety valve released some of the coruscating pressure from the fixture, eased the physical, often violent intent of an engagement where once figures like Barr, Heery, Harnan and McEntee produced x-rated entertainment.

PC sanitisation has banished their kind away out the back-door too.

Never could losers meet the winners in an All-Ireland final. Never could one side be forced to meet the other down some dark alley later on in high summer. It was always now or never, no tomorrow, no second chances.

The removal of seeding in Leinster added more lustre to the fixture, producing that first-round meeting in 1991, prompting Michael Delaney of the Leinster Council to fret about whether he would have to sell their swanky new offices in Portlaoise. By summer's end, they had enough moolah left to toss £60,000 to the players for a holiday.

Even though they could now meet at any time, it was still life and death stuff.

Liam Hayes recalls erasing a sense of order, of subservience. "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."

Meath's deliverance propelled them to that late-80s dominance and, ironically, an even more feral rivalry against Cork. In 1991, Dublin were now subservient.

"We almost made it," according to manager Paddy Cullen. "If we had got over Meath, we'd have won a few All-Irelands."


Even in 1993, Dessie Farrell was talking of the team's July 4 Leinster final win in dramatic terms. In his autobiography he revealed:"The indepen-dence gained from ditching our greatest rivals in Leinster couldn't be underestimated".

When Dublin ceded both crowns to Meath in 1996, Graham Geraghty recalled in his tome: "The relief was palpable. It was as if we had been freed from years of imprisonment in shackles".

These days, that sense of liberation no longer exists. Yet former Dublin footballer and historian Seán Óg Ó Ceallacháin, while acknowledging the gradual undermining of the fixture, refuses to call the last rites.

"Dublin v Meath will always mean something," he says. "Other rivalries come in and out, but in this one, the fella who wins the match is the man."

He describes what it will be like tomorrow in Navan, where his barber now resides, with the Meath and Dublin bunting competing in the new housing estates as fleets of cars head south. Dorset Street will hum with bristling intent before and brimming ecstasy for one or other afterwards.

The rest of the country may maintain a bemused indifference and the respective camps will dole out the cloying niceties. Yet try telling the supporters that Dublin v Meath doesn't mean anything. Gaeldom may need it more than they think.

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