Battling to book a rare day in the sun
Meath hurlers target a Leinster quarter-final as Laois bid to reverse decades of decline
The hurling world hasn't changed much since Martin Ennis had his day in the sun, 21 years ago. For a Meath hurler, playing Offaly in the Leinster quarter-finals in Croke Park, as part of a double-bill featuring Wexford and Kilkenny, represented the summit of a man's achievement.
He marked Billy Dooley. It is doubtful Billy Dooley will remember marking Martin Ennis. When Offaly scored an early goal Meath braced themselves for a "long day". But from there they went toe-to-toe with the team that had reached the previous two All-Ireland finals, winning two years earlier.
And now? Ennis is manager and Meath are looking to poke the bear again, trying to see if they can embark on a new era of exploration. Last year they won the Christy Ring, in remarkable circumstances, meaning a return to the Leinster Championship for the first time in 13 years.
Last Sunday's reinstatement could not have worked out better: a win in Navan over Kerry who were favourites having hurled two tiers higher than Meath in 2017. The league positions are misleading in that Meath won promotion from 2A and Kerry were relegated from 1B but Kerry were still expected to win. One more victory will see Meath compete in the Leinster quarter-finals as one of two qualifiers from the four-county round robin also containing Laois and Westmeath. This afternoon they meet Laois in Navan. Primed.
"It was huge for us," recalls Ennis of their day out with Offaly in '96. "We were after winning the All-Ireland B in '93, we had been building for a while." They performed admirably, losing 2-18 to 2-12. Earlier in that season they defeated Offaly and Wexford in the league. Ennis played both days. But soon the gulf between them and the recognised counties began to widen and they drifted out of the pubic eye. The same year, Meath won the All-Ireland senior football title with a young team managed by Sean Boylan, a hurler in his day. What chance had hurling in a county where football held such sway? A year later, Offaly trounced them by 21 points. The following year it was worse: 32 points. They withdrew for a few years, returned in 2001, pulled out again after '04. During their last spell in the Leinster Championship, in 2002, they defeated Laois.
Laois might feel that they shouldn't be in this company, but only the most deluded didn't stop thinking that a long time ago. Seeing the crisis unfolding, Pat Critchley and some others began sowing the seeds of a revival in their underage teams, where their stock had fallen badly. They are long past Critchley's time, and that of current senior selector John Taylor, when they were a contender for the Leinster Championship. Their last final appearance was in 1985. They have retreated to this point, whereas Meath have advanced towards it.
In 2013, GAA Congress in Derry was dominated by the success of the black card proposals. The decision to reduce the number of teams competing in the MacCarthy Cup race to 13 received much less attention. Part of that was the establishment of an initial qualifier group in Leinster, which started out with five nominated counties in 2014 and then was reduced to four. After some tweaking, the top two now reach the Leinster quarter-finals after playing each other, the bottom team is relegated to the Christy Ring, and the third-placed finisher stays put.
Last Sunday Laois, who defeated Kerry after extra-time in a play-off to remain in Division 1B of the league, overcame Westmeath in their first outing in the round robin. They fielded an inexperienced team with six debutants and won in spite of a late scare when the visitors goaled twice in a bold rescue bid.
Frank Keenan hurled for Laois into the early 1980s and is a member of the county board's hurling steering committee. He also served with Paudie Butler for three years when he managed the county team from 2002-'05. "This weekend will be a tough one," he says. "Meath beat Kerry and Kerry have been a bogey team for us in the last few years. It is a very young team at the moment, maybe the youngest team they have had in a while."
Laois have endured some harsh reality checks in the championship this decade. In 2010, they lost to Carlow. In 2011, they were destroyed by Cork by 34 points, conceding ten goals, in a qualifier. Last year, they lost to Offaly in Leinster and then went down by 35 points to Clare in the qualifiers. That marked the end of Seamus Plunkett's management reign which had seen some promising performances. In 2014, they topped the round robin and had a rare championship win over Offaly to reach the Leinster semi-finals, where Galway beat them convincingly. Dublin eliminated them from the qualifiers but the round robin sharpened their edge for the Offaly match.
In 2003, Keenan was a selector when Laois released the 'Hurling for Laois' programme. Butler, their manager at the time, said it offered an "opportunity" to a county where young people should be "going to bed dreaming of playing for Laois". The football team won Leinster the same year and it was hoped that this would inspire the hurlers. Hope is now invested in the much-improved teams that are coming through the county's development-squad system, and a quarter-final appearance, and a strong performance is where the senior team's ambitions rest.
Their current manager, Eamonn Kelly, is familiar with the trials of the down at heel, having previously managed Kerry. Kelly won the Christy Ring with Kerry in 2015 which earned them a pass to the Leinster Championship's round-robin series. Last year they won one match and retained their status. Their hopes of making the quarter-finals, still alive, were dented by last weekend's loss in Navan. Kelly was in charge of Offaly last year when they competed in the round robin, suffering a shock opening-round defeat to Westmeath.
It is 24 years since Kerry defeated Waterford in the Munster Championship in Walsh Park, after which The Rose of Tralee could be heard from the winning dressing room. Kerry were good at the time but Munster then is not what Munster is now and Kerry have been grateful for Leinster's offer of foster care. Their minors also compete in the Leinster league.
"It's a fantastic opportunity for Kerry because other than that we would be out of our depth," says Gerard McCarthy, chairman of the county's hurling steering group. "We had a very good game with Meath. I wasn't surprised with Meath's performance, probably a bit disappointed with our own. They play Laois in Navan and it is a big game for them; they will give Laois plenty of it."
Kerry had various tours of duty in Munster. They withdrew from the MacCarthy Cup in 2001, rejoined in 2003, and spent 11 years in the Christy Ring until earning promotion back into the main championship race last year. Their hopes of a Leinster quarter-final spot rests on today's match with Westmeath. "It is winner-takes-all for ourselves and Westmeath," states McCarthy. "Look, it is an All-Ireland final for both teams."
For counties in this social class, news of breakthroughs like Westmeath's defeat of Kilkenny in last year's Leinster under 21 championship is always welcome. It gives hope that all is not lost and that dreams some might consider too far-fetched can come true.
Adrian Moran was the Westmeath under 21 manager that evening, and also served as assistant senior manager last year, a role he has since relinquished. "It wasn't totally unexpected," he says. "The minors had a few good years. We had about 16 lads training with the seniors from the previous Christmas and they were all strong hurlers. If we were not out of the game after 20 minutes we felt we had a chance. That is when all those top teams do most of their damage."
Moran has been involved with Westmeath development squads since 2003. In 2015, the minors defeated Wexford in the Leinster quarter-final and they have also beaten Offaly over the last ten years. In 2001, Laois scored eight goals against Westmeath in a minor match and each side of that year Offaly slaughtered them. The progress since then is exceptional but they can't ever rest up and this year they took a hammering from Kilkenny minors in Mullingar.
Any victory is welcome and appreciated. "The seniors beating Offaly last year was a big thing," Moran says. And he is staunchly supportive of the round-robin model. "Any of the four can make the quarter-finals and I definitely think there is a Leinster semi-final up for grabs."
He knows that the loser in Mullingar today will be "staring relegation down the barrel" and he adds that he would not be surprised to see Meath win in Navan.
A Meath win would match anything their manager, Ennis, had as a player. When he took over he decided they needed to aim higher. They started off by entering the Walsh Cup to get stiffer challenges. They have taken tough decisions. Last year's captain, James Toher, a dual player, was let go because they felt he didn't give the necessary commitment required with football dividing his time. Toher was captain when they won the Christy Ring last year.
"Meath, as we all know, is a traditional football county first," admits Ennis. "Hurling is second; we are just working hard to stay in Leinster to try to keep Meath hurling up where we believe it can be."
So, today, for the second week running, four counties meet, and four similar stories converge. Even in competition there's a natural brotherhood which binds them, come what may.
LEINSTER SHC PREVIEWS
Westmeath v Kerry, TEG Cusack Park 3.0
A year ago both counties were blessed with flying starts, Westmeath in particular, who ended up topping the group after a stunning launch when defeating Offaly by 14 points. The slow start to this year’s league ruined their promotion prospects and last weekend two late goals put a more positive spin on the final scoreline against Laois.
Kerry’s only win in the competition was last year’s first-round defeat of Carlow, who were relegated. Neither wants to be facing into the last needing a win to survive. Kerry might find the performance they need but it is a toss-up and Westmeath at home can turn a corner here.
Meath v Laois, Páirc Tailteann 3.0
Meath stand on the brink of a place in the quarter-finals on the back of an impressive return to the Leinster Championship last weekend when defeating Kerry in Navan. On recent league form there hasn’t been much to separate Kerry from Laois, who went with a string of young players the last day and were deserving winners.
In spite of the progress Meath have made, and their redoubtable spirit, Laois are still marginally favoured to stay on a winning course. If not it is another duel with Kerry in the final round, with plenty hinging on it as usual.
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