Tyrone struggle to deal with Royals' rumble
Former boss Colm Coyle tells Ruaidhri O'Connor Meath are ready to inflict hat-trick of damaging defeats on Red Hand
PLAYED two, won two. Meath's championship record against Tyrone may not take up much space in the annals but it has had its impact on the football landscape.
Seventeen years on from their first encounter, the scars are still felt by the defeated northerners. Meath were imperious in that 1996 All-Ireland semi-final but in the days that followed the calls flowed into 'Liveline' about their overt physicality, which left Peter Canavan limping and Brian Dooher and Ciaran McBride playing with bandages wrapped around their heads.
They haven't forgotten that day in Tyrone, but when they got their chance for revenge, in the 2007 All-Ireland quarter-final, they couldn't take it. Today marks a third instalment.
While their friends in the north remember the '96 semi-final with resentment, for the people of Meath it was a standout day in the second coming of Sean Boylan's team, just a year on from a 10-point Leinster final humiliation at the hands of Dublin.
With a blend of youth and experience, they came into the game as rank outsiders but left nine-point winners, having dominated the Ulster champions. Their midfield was outstanding, while a young Graham Geraghty was imperious, kicking 1-4. They would finish the year as All-Ireland champions.
However, the recriminations that followed did leave a sour taste for a Meath team who faced accusations of brutality. Martin O'Connell was accused of stamping on Dooher's head, while John McDermott was said to have taken Canavan out.
Colm Coyle played at half-back in 1996 and was manager in 2007. He admits that the bad feeling lingered into that year's encounter.
"We got bad press over it because they had three lads with bandages on their heads like turbans, when a plaster would have done," he recalls.
"We had John McDermott and Jimmy McGuinness in midfield and I don't think the Tyrone midfield were that big – they were mobile but we were able to shut them down. We won midfield and won the game.
"Peter Canavan got injured, he went over on his ankle and there were accusations that we had taken him out. We didn't, that wasn't in the plan at all. He took a tackle and went over on his ankle.
"It did affect us, it was the usual thing about 'dirty Meath'. It did because there was a thing with Martin O'Connell and Brian Dooher, they were saying that he stamped on his head – but Martin's probably the cleanest player that ever played football, it's not in his nature.
"The thing with the bandages and stuff like that, there was a fair bit of thumping going on in that game, but we didn't start it and we weren't the only ones doing it. I ended up myself with a busted lip and was pumping blood at the end. You get on with it.
"The media attention, I think it was a case of Tyrone were unlucky in '95 (when they lost the All-Ireland final to Dublin by a point) and Meath came up and beat them up in Croke Park, bulls**t like that – you know?"
The teams had met earlier that summer and the friendly match had lasting implications, just like the semi-final itself.
"We played them in a challenge match in Navan and they absolutely hammered us. There was a comment made, 'ah, you've a nice little team there, Sean'," Coyle remembers.
"The thing was, Sean was such a genius that he looked at that and knew from that challenge that if we met them again, we'd beat them. He put a plan in place, whereas they probably said, 'we played these boys a couple of months ago, we'll kick the crap out of them, we'll hammer them'."
That plan worked, but Coyle reckons the ghosts of the semi-final almost cost them in the final when he was required for an unusual late point to send the game against Mayo to a replay.
"There was a lot of stuff going on that took away from the preparations. In the final, Mayo horsed into us and we sat back a bit because of the whole thing that was levelled against us," he explains.
"As history shows, the second day it all kicked off, which was a bit unfair on that team, but you have to stand up for yourself. It probably stemmed from that (semi-final) because, until then, the Leinster final and the other games were good, hard games. From the Tyrone game, the whole thing of 'dirty Meath' from the late '80s resurfaced."
That first outing is said to have shaped what was to come with Tyrone. Canavan has since talked about his team being unable to deal with the Royals' physicality. It inflicted "mental scars" that lingered until Mickey Harte took over and revolutionised the county's fortunes.
"They were well steeled before that, anyone in Ulster would tell you that," Coyle argues, adding: "1996 was the hardest I ever trained with the Meath team, it was the fittest I ever was, and I'd say the other lads were the same.
"We had a lot of younger lads, but later years proved that they turned out to be exceptional footballers. It was another step along the way to winning the All-Ireland that year."
Eleven years later, there were still some familiar faces around as Meath dumped the 2003 and '05 champions out at the quarter-final stage. Coyle patrolled the touchline, while Geraghty, Darren Fay and Dooher were out on the field. Meath marked Dooher and Sean Cavanagh and came away four-point winners.
"We had no fear of Tyrone, we had been down in the dumps for a while but, listen, you want to have a go at the best and between Kerry and Tyrone, they were the best. We were delighted to match them and I think we won it on merit," Coyle said.
Long-suffering Meath fans will be hoping that the 'no fear' applies once again today and Coyle believes that there are reasons to be optimistic as they look to continue their 100pc Croke Park record against Tyrone.
"Meath will have no fear of playing Tyrone and I know from talking to lads, to supporters, they're saying, 'we always beat Tyrone.' That's not the way to look at it, but at the same time it means you're not beaten before you go out into battle – and it is going to be a battle," he said.
"The Meath way of playing football is something Tyrone find difficult to play against, long angled balls. That's why I'd be hopeful we can get a good result out of it."