Tuesday 20 March 2018

Royals break the mould in return to bogman's football

Mayo stumbled with the line in sight but don't knock Meath's steady improvement, says Colm O'Rourke

A nd then there were four. The big three and the dark horse. Cork and Tyrone will be fasten your seat belt time, while Meath and Kerry? Well, we'll say a prayer on that one.

The bookies have already decided that Kerry are in the final with the other match a much tighter affair. But the Kingdom won't take anything for granted on this one. There is a lot of respect for Meath in Kerry and this contest will focus their minds in a very different way than if they were playing Mayo.

The last time Meath and Kerry met in an All-Ireland semi-final in 2001, it turned into a very strange game as Meath won easily. Kerry won't forget that one. Meath have also played both Cork and Tyrone recently in championship games in Croke Park, beating Tyrone in the quarter-final in 2007 before losing heavily to Cork in the semi-final.

The joy in Meath last week was about more than just beating Mayo. The win was a statement of old values that seemed to have been lost. It was about men willing to put themselves in personal danger to get a hand in, to block a kick; to chase a man down who was not your own; to keep running when the passes were not coming and every other unselfish act that makes a group of players who put on the same colour jersey become a team.

These are not values on which Meath or anybody else has a monopoly. They are shared by Cork and Tyrone. And Kerry gave the best demonstration of all in the game against Dublin. Because behind the brilliance, the sheer excellence in scoring, the mobility and skill, lay ageless values of hard work, honesty of effort and respect for colleagues. In every great side somebody has to do the dirty work in getting possession. If everyone is willing to do it, then you are in business.

It is this that makes champions and creates the next generation who grow up with the proper attitude to all the great skills of the game. If Gooch Cooper is willing to tackle, if Sean Cavanagh will block down kicks or if Graham Canty can solo, kick and score like a forward, it is easy to show young players that to become a great player requires mastering a completely different range of skills, not just soloing and scoring.

Meath, after a ropey start when they failed to score for nearly all of the first quarter, went back to fairly basic football against Mayo last Sunday. If some call it bogman's football, then that is a compliment in itself; the family tree does not have to be traced back too far in Meath or anywhere else to find a bit of turf mould under the fingernails.

The essence of the game was to win the ball and in many cases kick it into the forwards, who had to be willing to fight for it whatever way that ball came in.

It obviously puts a bit of emphasis on good fielding and long kicking, two of the arts of football which seem to have made a bit of a comeback in championship games this year. And don't be fooled into thinking that Tyrone are a short-passing team all the time -- they were the best kickers by far last year.

Mayo faltered again with the line in sight. Some things certainly went against them, especially the injuries to Aidan O'Shea and Aidan Kilcoyne, but for all that they had the momentum going with them in the second half and were not good enough to press home the advantage.

John O'Mahony did raise the disputed line ball and Patrick O'Rourke being close to taking the ball over his own line for a goal, and they were issues alright, but O'Mahony was his usual sporting self in defeat and Mayo would be foolish if they didn't hold onto him.

O'Mahony knows the swings and roundabouts of sport better than most -- a week earlier Limerick got two goals against Meath which, shall we say, were open to some debate. This time round the favour went very much towards Meath. Leaving aside all of this though, Meath fought harder in the last quarter, and I'm sure O'Mahony realised that too and it must be his biggest worry for the future.

Sometimes when favourites lose there is an analysis of how the mind works in these situations. Perhaps Mayo thought they were a much better team and with Stephen Bray suspended it may have increased their confidence.

This may also have been exaggerated further by the first ten minutes when Meath couldn't get their hands on the ball and Mayo looked as if they would win easily. Sometimes it can be difficult to get the brain to move to plan B when things start going wrong after programming it a certain way. Yet great players and great teams handle favouritism with ease -- they just go out and win.

In this regard, I am not in charge of Meath propaganda and tipping Mayo was not part of some Machiavellian plot to undermine them. On form, Mayo looked to have been playing a higher standard of football for longer than Meath, but Eamonn O'Brien's team have improved significantly. And if someone says Meath now have nothing to lose having come this far, then my response is that there is a place in the All-Ireland final to lose. There is not much bigger than that and as a player you never know if the bus will pass your way again.

The Romans' motto in these situations was carpe diem, seize the day. If the Roman Gaelic footballers failed to take on the challenge, then they probably spent a Sunday afternoon dodging lions in the Colosseum. Maybe this should be part of the half-time entertainment in Croke Park. (Then again it was a big part of the show for a decade with Mickey Lyons chasing Dubs.)

Just as well the Green Party were not around back then or most of those games would have been banned as blood sports. That is why it is even more important to seize the moment; most of the time it passes forever.

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