The boys are back in town: Dublin make winning league return to Navan after 35-year wait

Dublin's Ciarán Kilkenny in action against Cathal Hickey of Meath during the Division 2 clash at Páirc Tailteann. Pic: David Fitzgerald/Sportsfile

Cormac Costello with fans in Navan

thumbnail: Dublin's Ciarán Kilkenny in action against Cathal Hickey of Meath during the Division 2 clash at Páirc Tailteann. Pic: David Fitzgerald/Sportsfile
thumbnail: Cormac Costello with fans in Navan
Niall Scully

NAVAN was alive with a sense of anticipation. The streets were dancing. Páirc Tailteann wasn’t just staging a game. It was hosting an occasion.

The Dubs were coming to play a National League game for the first time in 35 years. The last time was in December 1988.

A Division 1 fixture. Dublin won that day, 1-12 to 0-4. Kieran Duff got the goal and three points. Current Dublin selector Mick Galvin was playing, as was future Dublin manager Tommy Carr.

Jim Gavin took his seat in the stand on Saturday. The sun was out. But there was a bite in the air. Beware the Ides of March. And the Dublin football team.

The Navan carpet was in excellent order. Firm and true. A man came out with a fork.

The stand was full an hour before throw-in. The press box was packed. There was tea and cake inside the door. It was going to be a busy night at the Meath Chronicle. They had five pages to fill.

A glossy programme was produced. Colm O’Rourke wrote his manager’s notes with all the honesty of one of his columns for the Sunday Independent. “For years, we have measured ourselves against the Dubs. We have to get back to that standard,” he wrote.

Cormac Costello with Dubs fan Alison Robinson after the win over Meath

The crowds poured onto the terrace. The music played over the tannoy. The visitors were happy to hear the Royals pay homage to Phil Lynott and Thin Lizzy.

Over the PA came the announcement: “We would like to extend a very warm welcome to our friends from Dublin.” The boys were back in town.

Before the start, there was a minute’s silence for Liam Kearns, a man who had graced so many venues as a player and manager.

The two managers shared a warm greeting in front of the dugouts. They were footballers that no defender relished marking.

When Dessie and Colm had the ball in the gloves, it would have taken a locksmith to prize it away.

Annie Galligan sang the National Anthem. The pride of Oldcastle. A classically-trained soprano who has sung the anthem before All-Ireland finals in Croke Park.

Dublin’s No 1 band hardly missed a beat. Yet a first half wide into the town-end goal sparked one of the most amusing sights of the day.

A gang of kids grappled for the ball on the green bank. It developed into quite a scrum, with the crowd cheering along. And the kids didn’t seem in any rush to return the ball!

Dublin looked like a team in a hurry to catch the bus back to Division 1. They won this Allianz Football League Division 2 contest with comfort, 2-19 to 1-11. The same 11-point winning margin of that league game back in 1988.

By the end of it, there were no soles left in their socks. Long before the finish, the match was well parcelled. All it needed was the stamp that was the final whistle.

But that didn’t matter to these Dubs. In the second half, Seán Bugler made a brave and brilliant block in front of the stand.

The ball became loose again. There was a jostle for possession. Seán managed to get a toe to the ball. They say sport can all come down to inches. And here was the man from St Oliver Plunkett/Eoghan Ruadh living that very message.

Killian O'Gara got his full league debut at Páirc Tailteann

It was a composed, controlled display from the visitors. David Byrne so sure in defence. Taking the ball from the clouds and slipping away simple passes.

Daire Newcombe kept it neat and tidy. Lee Gannon had another excellent match. Decorating it with two elegant points.

James McCarthy and Brian Fenton, so polished on the ball. Making time dance to their tune. Every time Brian pulls on the Dublin shirt, he turns the ignition in the Rolls Royce. Con O’Callaghan’s red boots were made for scoring.

Dessie Farrell was content. “We were looking for more consistency. We haven’t been as consistent as we would have liked in some of the games, but today we were,” the Dublin boss said.

“We had a good lead at half-time, but the fellas kept going. They worked hard. We are happy with the performance, but we know we still have lots to work on.”

Dublin had the sharpest of openings. Three points in the flick of a switch. Soon, it was seven points to one. And 1-11 to 1-2 at the break.

Meath’s goal came from Matthew Costello at the Hospital End. This young Meath side put it all in. Proud of the shirt on their back.

“Dublin’s start took the wind out of our sails,” the Meath chief said. “We were out-played all over the pitch.

“Dublin have such quality footballers. There’s not many teams that could compete with the calibre of players that they have.

“We are all disappointed. The players are disappointed, but good players learn from bad defeats. Things are not going to happen overnight here. It’s going to be a slow process. But we’ll keep going.”

Killian O’Gara never stopped on his full League debut, 1-3 in the bank. And the player-of-the-match award on the mantelpiece. Plus, no doubt, words of praise from the big brother, Eoghan.

“It’s such a competitive squad. It’s not easy to get your place on the team. You have to try and take your chance when it comes along,” said Killian.

And he certainly did that. Eoin Murchan made the goal, with one of those bursts that would give Jack McCaffrey a run for his money.

Murchan is another footballer that underlines Dublin’s industry. Their willingness to put in the hard yards.

He combined with goalkeeper David O’Hanlon to foil Aaron Lynch of a certain goal late on.

That same resolve was evident deep in injury-time when the speed of Colm Basquel down the left opened the door for Cormac Costello.

The ground had begun to empty by then. The oval ball bouncing into view.

Late on in the evening, all was quiet around this fabled old ground. There was a man locking up.

The Meath players were having their dinner. The Dublin bus had left for home.

A chap gave his judgement on the Blues. He was impressed. “I have seen them a couple of times now. And they are getting there. Getting back to where they were.”

Down in the town, the pubs were packed. The bell rang for evening mass. Some of the faithful slipped in through the church gates.

Saying a prayer for the Royals, the Irish rugby team and, maybe, even lighting a candle for the Dubs.