THEY SAY you can never write off Meath but whoever ‘they’ are need to realise that it is not 1996. You certainly can write them off; the bigger mistake is to write them on, as we did in our preview for their final NFL game of the season, when we opined that Louth had not beaten Meath in a big game in living memory and were highly unlikely to start now.
This never writing a certain team off is a cliche that takes a long time to bury. They were probably saying it about Kildare in the 1920s or Cavan in the 1930s and 1940s or Louth in the 1950s. They are saying it less now about an Offaly side whose descent continued this spring with six defeats in Division Three.
Perhaps our problem down the years is to assign certain counties a mythical status of having the knack of making comebacks or winning tight, important games as a sort of birthright associated with where they are from. People assumed there was something in the water up around the Boyne Valley that made its people hardier and more determined than those who had the misfortune to grow up elsewhere.
The fact is that in the 1980s and 90s Meath simply had a freakish amount of brilliant footballers at their disposal. If you were to pick a best 15 from all of Ireland for the 1984-1999 period you would be demented trying to find places for Robbie O’Malley, Mick Lyons, Mark O’Reilly, Darren Fay, Liam Harnan, Martin O’Connell, Liam Hayes, John McDermott, Graham Geraghty, Trevor Giles, Tommy Dowd, Brian Stafford, Ollie Murphy, Colm O’Rourke, Brendan Reilly and Bernard Flynn, before you even got to footballers from the other 31 counties.
Yes, all those players had steely determination and Sean Boylan moulded them into a coherent unit that worked hard for each other and did not give up. But it is not as if they were magically more mentally tough than the counties they overcame; the crucial difference, by and large, was simply that Meath had better footballers.
Now, as they wake up to the prospect of Division Three football, many Royals on many message boards are bemoaning how “gutless” today’s players are compared to the glory days; analyst Martin McHugh backed up that school of thought by describing the present-day Meath footballer as “soft”. There is some logic; Meath don’t look to be a happy camp. But the bigger truth is extremely simple: Meath simply don’t have any truly great footballers any more.
They have lots of handy ones: Kevin Reilly is as good a back as most counties can boast, and on their day, the Cian Wards and Stephen Brays and Paddy Gilsenans are accurate forwards who are tough to marshal. But they are no better a crop than the footballers you will find in at least 15 other teams, and a long way behind the standard of player you’ll find in the top three or four. Most counties are happy to have two or three genuine superstars crop up in a generation; since the mid-80s, Meath twice lived through the glory of having two or three special players in their full-forward line alone.
Saying that the present squad can’t emulate that because they don’t have the commitment or the guts is like saying that Robbie Keane cannot emulate Lionel Messi because he lacks character and doesn’t work hard enough. There is no way that Meath will come close to winning an All-Ireland in the next five years, because they cannot quite match the talent coming through in Mayo or Cork, let alone Kerry.
The reasons for their demise are rooted more in tactical and technical deficiencies than any surfeit of determination. One major problem is that the side is simply too cumbersome; the cause of their annihilation on Sunday had more to do with that than not being “up for it”. A post-match quote from Louth manager Peter Fitzpatrick underlined that truth, as he revealed that they had studied a compilation of Kildare’s recent successes over Meath, built, he said, on running straight at them, particularly on the counterattack.
Of course, none of this means that the Meath squad is a happy place and that a lack of ability is the only problem. There is indiscipline, characterised by two second-half sending offs on Sunday. There is uncertainty, characterised by Graham Geraghty’s dual role as selector and player – does he send himself on? There is a hint of unrest in the timing of Joe Sheridan’s emigration. And there is a feeling deep down that Seamus McEneaney took the job just to prove a point after the hurt of how he was treated by Monaghan, that the fit has never been comfortable, a rushed marriage that has been doomed since day one.
Perhaps Meath will stir themselves after Sunday’s embarrassment. They could have their own video session, and note that Kildare recovered from a similar hammering by Louth in 2010 to make an All-Ireland semi. They will have Reilly and Shane O’Rourke back for the summer. They may even decide to finalise their divorce with Banty before the championship and get some impetus from someone off the above list of former greats. If everything went superbly for them in the next few months, they might even entertain thoughts of ending Kildare’s run against them in the Leinster semi-final.
The really sobering thought for Royals, however, is that if you solved all of these problems tomorrow, they would still be a distance off the best teams in the land. The cliche has come full circle, instead of never being able to discount Meath, you can never really rely on them.