Brian Smyth, Meath’s All Ireland winning captain of 1949, turned 90 during the past week. Fifty years after he had orchestrated the moment that changed and shaped Meath’s sporting history forever, it was marked in the most appropriate way possible as the Sam Maguire was again captured in 1999. Now read on…
In what was honestly a throwaway fashion, somebody made the observation on the evening Cork were conquered that it could be twenty years before such an eventuality was experienced again. At the time, though, such an outcome would’ve appeared unfathomable. Even allowing for the fact that Meath exited the contest at the first hurdle in Millennium year – not unheard of for defending champions – they again contested the showpiece in 2001.
A realistic or objective appraisal following that resounding thumping by Galway might have offered the clearest indication to that point that life as we knew it was ending. Much pondering and posturing tends to be engaged in when the subject of underage structures appears on the radar but the dearth of success enjoyed by Meath teams at underage level for too long has been inescapable.
And yet, the county has continued to produce talented footballers at all levels. Perhaps just not enough of them at once. Yet, there may be an alteration afoot in the latter factor. Whatever about the contributions of players such as Damien Carroll, Andy Tormey, Graham Reilly, Mickey Newman and – in particular – Shane O’Rourke, something even more significant may be developing. A little under the radar too.
Optimism may seem a tad misplaced, unfair even, against the backdrop of Eamon Wallace’s knee injury. A horrible blow for the player, his club and the county. Obviously, it’s Ratoath who will feel his loss the worth. The significance of the blow his loss will be to the Meath U-21 team shouldn’t be underestimated either. Nor that of equally talented performers such as Cillian O’Sullivan, James McEntee and Jason Daly – to name but three.
Sean Barry, his fellow mentors and players have gone about their work quietly and diligently. Often devoid of the members of the senior squad available to them for much of their preparations. Still, after two gritty efforts against Louth and a classy display in overcoming Offaly, they have made it to a Leinster final.
Granted, they will have to produce something not seen from a team out of the Royal County in the grade for a long time if they are to upset a star laden Dublin, but, their mere presence in the fixture is noteworthy enough in itself. Indeed, if the old line of thought that conventional thinking evaporates when these two collide holds true, anything could happen.
What the U-21 run has also done, mind you, is brought a different sense of stability to the senior side that has allowed the potential therein to flourish. Things have to be fair been more stable in the Mick O’Dowd era than for some of what went before and, while there have been desperate disappointments along the way, there’s an underlying sense that another step on the progress ladder may not be that far off.
O’Rourke’s influence since his return from too many injury ravaged seasons has been beacon like. Equally so, however, has been the input of those infused from Barry’s battalion. Wallace and Padraic Harnan were already in situ, but just as laudable have been the contributions of the likes of Conor Sheridan and Bryan McMahon when they have featured.
The younger lads have blended in seamlessly and playing together regularly has apparently been good for all concerned, that’s not to say that there’s not room for improvement in certain areas as well, for all that. Progress at U-21 level has been quite the fillip all the same and, while mindful of the talent they have been shorn of, the manner in which others have stepped up has been impressive and encouraging.
Seamus Mattimoe foremost among them. The Gaeil Colmcille player must be considered to have done enough to earn himself a crack at the highest level. Many more of his colleagues will surely at least be given the opportunity to do likewise and that such is the case has to be positive.
Time to sprinkle a bit of context on proceedings. As commendable as the draw in Donegal unquestionably was, and as satisfying as overcoming Laois on their own patch was as well, gut feeling says it’s still very much a work in progress. Stability again emerges as the key component.
Areas requiring brushing up have already shown themselves and – if calculations are correct – even wins in the final two NFL games against Down and Louth mightn’t be enough for promotion. What they would achieve, also, is to maintain a bit of forward momentum heading towards the championship.