Dear sir - I am writing to convey my absolute abhorrence at the decision by the Meath board and players not to arrange for a replay against Louth in the Leinster final. I, like many others find their decision beyond belief. As a sportsman myself, I ask how could Meath justify 'winning' the trophy in that manner? - Letter from a Drogheda resident in the Meath Chronicle, July 2010
Last week, Peter Fitzpatrick sat down to watch the 2010 Leinster senior football final in full for only the third time.
There was no particular reason why, other than that it had come up in conversation and not a week goes by that he doesn't think of that game at least once.
His first viewing was that night of July 11, the same evening that Spain won the World Cup in Johannesburg, South Africa, at the end of a beautiful summer's day. Sometimes, after a long period of absence, you see things in a new light.
It is evident talking to Fitzpatrick ten years on that he feels as strongly now as he did back then. "I have been involved in sport all my life, soccer, athletics, rugby, and anything I ever won in my life I won it fair and square," he states.
"I just felt the Delaney Cup in 2010 wasn't won fair and square. We had our best team in nearly 50 years on the field that day but that shook the living daylights out of Louth. We're still recovering."
The day after the match the Irish Independent carried a photo on its front page of the referee being escorted from the field, in evident distress.
When Gaelic games makes the front pages it is not always favourable coverage. The pictures were of chaotic and unruly scenes and charged emotion. Louth followers spilled on to the pitch and surrounded Martin Sludden, the Tyrone match official. When referees are on the front pages it is usually not for good reasons either.
The root of Louth's pique is well known and widely documented. On the brink of a first Leinster title win in 53 years, they were denied by a goal that should not have been allowed.
At that stage nearly four minutes of injury time had been played, well past the three minutes signalled. Joe Sheridan caught the ball in the small square, and hurled himself over the line, throwing it into the net. The green flag umpire didn't budge.
Sludden appeared to be recording the score in his notebook when, after appeals from the Louth players, he went in to apparently consult with the umpire, but instead merely instructed him to award the score.
From the kick-out, he blew the final whistle. Players and supporters went after him seeking some kind of explanation or retribution.
Moments before the drama, with Louth on the cusp of a famous victory, the watching Leinster Council chairman, Sheamus Howlin, sadly since deceased, turned to Pat Toner, the former Louth secretary and then provincial council treasurer, and told him that he was going to have the privilege of handing the Delaney Cup to the winning captain.
He had to lean across the country's President, Mary McAleese, seated between them, to inform him. At that moment, Louth had one hand on the trophy.
But the play ran on and a final Meath push saw a high ball in from Graham Reilly towards the Louth goal spectacularly fielded by Seamus Kenny.
He moved to the side of Paddy Keenan to make room. Keenan made an heroic half-block. The ball spun up in the air, the Louth defender Dessie Finnegan watched it slip from his hands, and then Sheridan pounced.
In an ironic twist, Kenny's father, Paul, played for Louth and later managed their senior football team. Everyone has his own take.
Had Kenny finished his chance none of this would be spoken about now. "That is something I suppose I kinda thought about every day for a long number of years," admits Kenny.
"If you were given the opportunity again would you have done it differently? I didn't normally get into those positions, I think I hit the ball as hard as I could, which was probably a very un-forward-like thing to do.
"Paddy (Keenan) got a block on it and it felt like it was up in the air for an awful lot longer than it was. Then all of a sudden it was in the net."
* * * * *
On The Sunday Game that night the RTE analyst Kevin McStay said he would like to see the match replayed, "but how they get to that decision I'm not so sure".
Colm O'Rourke also expressed a preference for a second go at it, but reckoned the GAA at national level needed to make a call, and not leave it to Meath.
Under the rule book, there was no allowance for mercy cases like this. If the referee made an error and sanctioned the score, it stood as far as the records were concerned. Even when the referee later admitted, as Sludden did in his report, that he had made a mistake.
The match was Sludden's first senior provincial final and while he was retained on the panel for 2011, his assignments dwindled and he was dropped off the referee list in 2012.
From Dromore, he continues to referee in Tyrone and has been elected to vice-chair of the county board. Peter Fitzpatrick was elected chair of Louth county board last December.
The two have never met since that day in Croke Park when Fitzpatrick helped shield the referee from harm as he was led off the field.
Sludden declined to speak about the events of 2010 when contacted on Thursday. He was in charge when Louth defeated Cavan in the final match of their Division 3 campaign in 2009, a match they needed to win to avoid relegation.
Even then they only escaped on score difference and were eliminated from the championship in the first round of the qualifiers on July 4. That October, Fitzpatrick, a Louth player for 16 years, replaced Seamus McEneaney as manager.
The following year Louth finished two points off promotion, heading into the summer unburdened by public expectations.
Wins over Longford, Kildare and Westmeath earned them a first Leinster senior final appearance in 50 years.
On the other side of the draw Meath were even more impressive in dispatching Offaly, Laois and Dublin, scoring five goals in the semi-final against the provincial champions of the previous five years.
The Royals hadn't waited as long as Louth to win a Leinster title, but the time since 2001 still constituted a drought by their standards.
They were warm favourites and led 0-8 to 0-5 at half-time, but after the interval Louth played their best football and were level by the 44th minute.
The teams were still level when Louth struck with an outstanding goal, a top corner finish by JP Rooney, with seven minutes of normal time left.
Meath were back to within a point with five minutes to go but while Louth missed chances, they were still one up when the three minutes of injury time had expired.
Sheridan, who had scored goals in all of Meath's matches, then catapulted himself into legend, though not as he would have wished it.
Fitzpatrick appealed to the referee as he left the pitch for an explanation and was invited to Sludden's dressing room.
"It was so obvious that it wasn't a goal," he says now. "The only pity was that the referee didn't have the balls to do the right thing. And then Croke Park dallying.
"If the rules said it couldn't be replayed why not come out and say it, not be getting our hopes up? It was a long, long week for Louth football."
In the dressing room after the game, according to Fitzpatrick's account, Sludden informed him that in his view Sheridan was fouled.
"I told him that Sheridan had thrown the ball into the net and asked him why he didn't consult his umpires. He said it was a penalty. So I said, well if it was a penalty why didn't you give the penalty? When I asked why he didn't consult the umpires he asked me to leave. I left then."
Despite the umpires failing to signal a score, and the dramatic pleas of Louth players to consult with his officials, he appeared satisfied with his own reading of what happened.
Players who approached him immediately after that decision and following the final whistle had their names taken. Yellow cards did not deter some of the more enraged Louth followers and a few ended up in court as a result of the aggression shown.
The Louth manager is seen trying to keep them at bay.
"He was really shook up in fairness," Fitzpatrick says. "I wouldn't like that to happen to anybody. What happened after the game should never happen to any referee. I would definitely condemn it."
He saw Sludden only once after that. "I went to Michaela Harte's funeral and he was ahead of me in the queue. That's the only time. I have never seen or spoken to him since."
* * * * *
The general consensus in the days afterwards was that the GAA's hands were tied by rule and the match result had to stand. But did the GAA do enough?
It was Thursday before a statement from Louth County Board finally extinguished any remaining hopes of having the match replayed. Until then there was on-going debate, with much of the spotlight on whether Meath would make a concession.
When the Meath players assembled on Gormanston beach for a swim and stretching session on the Monday evening the overwhelming view was that they should not be loaded with that decision. But if the players and management wouldn't who would - or should?
In the rules there was no scope for a second shot, but in 1995 there was a precedent when Laois offered Carlow a rematch after a point awarded to Laois was shown later on television to have gone wide.
It is believed that there was considerable resistance to this within the Laois County Board at the time, but enough of a supportive lobby emerged to carry the decision. Laois won the second day comfortably and claimed a huge PR triumph. In Carlow eyes, they had shown exemplary sportsmanship.
Meath could have made a similar gesture, and perhaps if they were wavering or uncertain, the GAA might have been more influential and persuasive. Leadership seemed absent, or at best hesitant.
A more pro-active lead from the top might be seen as unnecessary meddling but the consequences of the controversial finish to the 2010 Leinster final were felt by Meath too and the GAA at large.
It was an unmitigated disaster and fiasco. Meath's win was sullied and they went out of the championship two weeks later with a sense that they were victims too.
Many of their players have said they would have played it again, gladly, but didn't feel the decision should have been theirs.
The former Meath footballer Trevor Giles was one of those who publicly stated at the time that the right course for Meath, for their own sake if nothing else, was to offer a rematch.
Meath were well capable of winning, as they had played well below previous form in the final, with no caveat attached.
There are misgivings about offering a rematch, even if the circumstances were so rare as to be unlikely to be repeated.
This included opening a Pandora's box, and with the increase in matches and television cameras and scrutiny since Laois had set a precedent 15 years before, these were not unfounded.
For those intent on taking legal recourse, and challenging GAA rules, such precedents could be useful in building a future case.
But those who wanted the right and just outcome to a dreadful situation would have taken the view that those risks were worth taking.
That a powerful moral case could be made. Ultimately, Meath, for better or worse, decided against it.
"What happened in 2010 should never happen to anybody and it does really scar you," says Fitzpatrick. Everyone could agree on that much.
* * * * *
Louth went out of the championship 13 days later, beaten by Dublin in the final round of the qualifiers by seven points.
They were never the same team again. That winter, three of their best players, John O'Brien, Mick Fanning and Brian White, left Ireland for Australia. Fanning and O'Brien came back in the summer to play. White did not.
"I was on the east coast of Australia and I was doing a lot of drinking and partying at the time and I was in no shape to come back and try to play county football," he says. "So it was definitely a non-runner for me."
Louth lost to Carlow in Leinster and then Meath in the qualifiers, losing in Breffni Park where Cian Ward filled his boots with four goals. By then White was in Boston where he watched the Meath match in a bar.
He returned to play in the 2012 National League under Fitzpatrick but didn't feel he was making enough impact and went back to Boston for the summer.
Before he did he came on as a sub in the final round of the League against Meath in Navan when a Louth win relegated the home county to the third division.
He came home again to play for two seasons under Aidan O'Rourke and at the end of the 2014 season he retired along with Paddy Keenan, Fanning, Shane Lennon and O'Brien.
"We got a few bad losses that year and I got a few niggling injuries," explains White. "I was 28 at that stage, going to be 29 that October. I thought enough was enough."
In 2014, Louth finished bottom of Division 2 and suffered a 19-point loss to Down in Newry along the way. In the 2014 championship they defeated Westmeath but lost to Kildare by 15 points, and were hammered in Omagh in the qualifiers by Tyrone by 17 points. The next year they were relegated to Division 4.
"The game had changed a lot from 2010 to 2013-'14, it wasn't 15 on 15 anymore," says White. "We played up in Donegal in Division 2 in 2014 and it was just totally alien to us trying to play against it."
White continues to play club football with Cooley Kickhams and O'Brien was a groomsman at his wedding. This summer he and his wife are expecting their first child.
"I don't think it will ever fully go out of the system," he says of the 2010 Leinster final. "It is more of a slagging thing among ourselves now. I don't hold any grudges against anybody, it just happened. It was all a bit crazy.
"It is not even the Joe Sheridan thing that annoys me, because I was the freetaker that day. I missed two or three frees that I would normally score. That would be what I'd think of first, more than the Joe Sheridan thing.
"In 2012, Dessie Dolan was playing with us in Boston and I had a conversation with him about it. He had missed that famous free against Meath (in 2003). And I asked him how he felt about it and how did he recover. The next year he went on and won an All Star, so he put his head down and worked really hard.
"I didn't have a fairytale story like that but it was great to be able to listen to him."
He has bumped into Sheridan a good few times over the last few years, often around the Croke Park Hotel after matches. There was an awkward encounter between players from both squads in Copper Face Jacks nightclub after the 2010 final.
"A few words exchanged, it didn't come to blows or anything," he recalls. "Silly stuff."
* * * * *
Last weekend, while out shopping, Joe Sheridan encountered a random passer-by who made a light-hearted remark about 2010. That was his only offering, then he moved on.
"I will probably be remembered for that more than my actual career unfortunately," says Sheridan.
"When you look back I think it was an absolute horror show the way it was handled. The team weren't given any protection. I don't think the GAA handled it particularly well. It was unprecedented. We as a county needed more direction from them. It was put back on us."
He says they celebrated that night without much reluctance, enjoying their first provincial title in nine years. But the controversy took its toll.
"The stuff we missed out on was that we did not bring it round to the local schools, let the kids see it, that was all brushed under the carpet," says Sheridan.
"We got a real hammering in the media and everyone was hoping we would be beaten. And that probably didn't help us going into the (All-Ireland quarter-final) game against Kildare, a game we probably should have won."
But guilt? No. "For me, the way I thought, was that with football you left it on the pitch. Whatever happens, happens. There is a lot of stuff that went on between the white lines. Obviously you look at the whole thing of Louth and 50 years.
"If it happened in the first minute it would have been different. When it happened late it's different and then you have the whole emotion of the day. I didn't feel I needed to apologise. It wasn't a goal and it was very unfair but at the end of the day you just have to accept the rule.
"It happens to players all the time, throughout their careers, and will continue to happen because that is human error and that has to come into it a lot.
"You have to accept it as part of the game. Maybe with different technologies coming in now it might not happen again. You've got to move on and get on with it."
Meath never recovered. "It was the biggest comedown after Kildare," says Sheridan. "We may as well not have played that year. Even in the sense of some of the lads in the squad felt that we didn't deserve this. And that is fair enough, lads have their own opinions, but the whole of the rest of the country were wishing that the sooner you were bet the better."
He was left off the Meath panel for 2014, before making a surprise return under Andy McEntee as a back-up goalkeeper in December 2016 when aged 32. He put in a season as second-choice to Paddy O'Rourke before withdrawing from the squad the following December.
Seamus Kenny was 30 in 2010.
"We were quite poor on the day having come into the game with some decent form. That is not to take away from Louth at all, I though they played really well. Even in the dressing room after, it was as much relief as anything, because we knew we hadn't played well and we'd gotten out of jail," he said.
"We went over to Gormanston on the Monday, which was fairly regular, to get into the sea. A lot of things were happening, county board meetings, and GAA meetings. As a group we felt a lot was being thrown back on us, it was left to us to make a decision and we felt that wasn't really our place. We felt that it shouldn't be left to the players. If it was felt we needed to play the game again well then I am sure we would have."
A fortnight after the most controversial Leinster final ever, Kildare overpowered them. "Looking back it was a championship we could definitely have progressed further in," says Kenny. "We had a lot of lads that had been around a while and at the right age profile."
Kenny was captain the day in Navan in 2012 that Louth won and the home side was relegated to Division 3. He retired two years later, having won Leinster medals in 2001 and 2010.
* * * * *
Before he left the Louth manager's post after the 2012 season, Fitzpatrick found politics and is now an independent TD.
Through his new role as chairman of the county board, he vows to give his all to try to resurrect Louth and arrest their decline. Louth currently rest at the bottom of Division 3, having lost every match.
Since 2010, the most open championship of the decade, the province has become Dublin's personal fiefdom. The road to a Leinster final, let alone winning one, is longer than it ever was for a Louth partisan.
"I don't feel any different," says Fitzpatrick when asked if time has changed anything. "I still feel let down. I think the GAA should have grabbed it by the scruff of the neck, instead of letting it drag on and on. A decision needed to be made and there was nobody willing at the time to make a decision. I felt that Croke Park wanted someone else to make the decision for them."
After the Leinster final they went out of the championship to Dublin in Croke Park. "A memory that will always stick in my mind, I will never forget it, was after that game the Dublin supporters on Hill 16 stayed on for about 10 minutes and I'd never seen a team like Louth getting the cheering and support that Dublin gave us," says Fitzpatrick.
What dominates his thoughts are the many what-ifs? "Ten years on we should be celebrating Meath winning a Leinster Championship. The only hope you have, is that no team has to go through it again.
"I thought Louth played some superb football. The goal that JP Rooney got was out of this world. I was never so proud. Even if we were beaten and it had been a legitimate goal I wouldn't have minded it. People thought we were coming to make the numbers up. I felt we had a big game in us. All I wanted was to show the people of Louth what a good team we had. We in Louth will never ever forget the 11th of July 2010."
What they said
"I just think it's a disgraceful decision by the referee. I thought he (Joe Sheridan) threw the ball in the net. I honestly thought he was Dick Turpin without a mask. It was pure daylight robbery, I'm very, very annoyed."
"Maybe it's just because we are a small team or something like that, we are not a Meath or Dublin, Tyrone or Kerry we don't get these decisions. It's just not right. Our first final in 50 years and to get done like that, it's a disgrace. I'm absolutely sick. And when we see the papers and the replays it is just going to make it a lot worse when you can't do anything about it."
"People are saying I threw it in but I was heading for the line and I just dropped the ball and it was in the net. I was pushed in over the line so it should have been a penalty anyway. I think it was a perfect goal."
"There were a number of incidents that happened in the game that were debatable. This just happens to be one that happened in the very last minute. It's just very unfortunate for Louth."
"If we were beaten by a point, would anyone be asking for a replay because a decision went against us? Do we go back and look at the whole game? These are the things that happen in the course of a game. You can't just bring one decision under scrutiny, so then do you go back to look at every one?"
"I'm absolutely raging. What's the point in training all year when that happens? How he could give that goal, I don't know. Aaron Hoey was pleading with him to consult with his umpires but when he went in, he told them to put up the green flag."
"Two Gardaí then helped the referee leave the pitch. Isn't it awful that Gardaí need to take the ref off irrespective of the decision. There were just some awful scenes of people throwing bottles. One steward got hit with a bottle and has received medical attention. The referee is very shaken after that whole experience."
Croke Park stadium director
"We're disappointed. It did not look pretty. No amateur referee should be put through that. The referee should never be interfered with. It doesn't create a positive image for us. This is not part of our game."
GAA communications manager
"There is no place in any Irish sport for that type of outrageous scene. I understand the passion of fans but true fans would not do that, there is no justification for it."
Minister for Justice
"If we received an offer of a replay we would accept that and see it as a very generous gesture from the Meath County Board. That's not to say they didn't win the Delaney Cup, they got more scores than we did, it's not Joe Sheridan's fault, it's not anybody's fault."
Louth County Board chairman
"Unfortunately, this sort of thing is not rare at all, there is a lamentable amount of it happening at local level and, worryingly, especially at juvenile and underage games. I hear stories from referees all the time about the physical and verbal abuse they're having to deal with. This attitude still remains part of the GAA's culture, it has never been rooted out."
Sunday Indo Sport