Excited optimism tempered by realism

#GAA #MEATH

You probably expected this piece to appear here before now. And the truth is it could, and probably should, have. Various reasons necessitated the delay in production, however. It may not necessarily have been a bad thing either. Now read on…

There are seminal moments in life. Occurrences during the transpiring of which you will never forget where you were. In my lifetime, it just so happens that a large proportion of them have been sorrowful. Whether coincidence or not could be debated – and scarcely matters – but for the Omagh bombing, the 9/11 attacks and the ensuing American invasion of Afghanistan, wheels transporting yours truly were parked in Brady’s of Dunboyne.

Of course, landmark moments are not all as horrific as those referred to. They can be wonderful and very often punctuate sport too. For example, on the day my first nephew Conor – who received his Leaving Cert results recently – was born, I was ‘test driving’ a golf buggy loaned to me by Dave Berrigan as the wheelchair of the day was in sickbay.

Onward, however, to what prompted production of what you’re reading. Albeit in a circuitous way. Like the haymaking stopping for the penalties in Genoa, or again being at hay when Katie Taylor claimed Olympic gold, not to mention being in London as Adrian Maguire steered Cool Ground to win the Cheltenham Gold Cup in 1992.

Similarly, all too easy can it be recalled where one was when a certain phone call was received. Located where a lot of time tends to be spent. Flitting between the computer and the reading space – that is to say the drain board of the sink – in my office. Eoghan Lynch began the conversation thus: “I hope you’re sitting down”! It was a needed bit of levity. For this was a dialogue that had been dreaded for months. As full acceptance of what was about to happen was dodged.

“He’s not going forward” came the sinking confirmation. My namesake, neighbour, friend, inspiration, healer – and so very much more – had called time on his 23 year, glory-filled tenure as Meath manager. Even though I was only 24, even at that stage, it was as if the greatest chapter of my sports following life had ended.

Now, before any strange thoughts take hold, a passionate interest has – and will – always be maintained in the fortunes of Meath teams, regardless of who’s at the helm. Simply as the fortunes of Meath – and of course Dunboyne – teams are crucial to me on levels far more important than sporting ones.

Yet it’d be hoped that there would be a realisation of the especial connection that was felt during Sean Boylan’s unforgettable stint as Meath boss. Commensurate feelings now abide. Seminal moments, even sporting life is full of them. It’s pertinent now, though, to recall the first meeting with Andy McEntee, what is a quarter century ago, or very near it.

He was making his way out what was then a Centra supermarket – with daughter Aisling aloft on his shoulders – as my mother was wheeling me in aboard a manual wheelchair. A lot of water has gone under a lot of bridges since then! What amazed me was that he knew who I was.

Over the intervening years, Andy, along with so many other Dunboyne players across the GAA codes, was a central figure to some of the happiest times in my life. Both as player and, in more recent years, coach. Sometimes each at the same time! To that end, it was a particularly special moment a couple of years ago – and must have been multiply so for the family – when Andy lined out in the Dunboyne colours alongside his son, Shane.

Such an influential and driven individual was always likely to go into management once his playing days (eventually) ended. Short odds would’ve been offered on the venture being successful too. Oh how it has been as well, with Donaghmore/Ashbourne, the Dunboyne and Meath minors and – most significantly – Ballyboden St Enda’s.

This may be a case of stating the obvious, but, there are club sides in Dublin that would give many a county team a run for their money. The club championship thence is surely the most competitive anywhere. So to emerge out thereof would be a commendable achievement in itself – especially given that other entities in the capital are far more star-laden than were McEntee’s men – let alone lifting the Andy Merrigan Cup.

It is for those reasons that my neighbour’s recent appointment as Meath manager fills me with a sense of excited optimism tempered by realism. The first emotions referred to are, you’ll surely understand, easily explained. When last a Dunboyne man (in this case via Nobber!) held the reins, it didn’t work out too bad!

Personally, it’ll be nice feel nice to feel that special connection again. However, therein lies the exact need for realism. The new manager, and his assistants, his brother Gerry and Donal Curtis and Finian Murtagh, aren’t going to be able to work miracles over night. Nor should they be expected to. Furthermore, before any horses are mounted, that caveat would carry credence regardless of who got the role.

Taking on to manage any team is a massive task. Most especially so at county level. It is only right that the efforts Mick O’Dowd and those with him be acknowledged. As also should be the raft of key players the Skryne clubman had to plan without during his time in charge. The development of players who emerged under his tutelage and can have important roles going forward should also be noted.

However, for all the newfound optimism that any new appointment naturally brings, a reality check is never far away. This resonates all too readily following recent happenings on the club scene. There are no sure things. Other, that is, than how far Meath have slipped behind the top counties – or more specifically Dublin.

How or why that happened doesn’t need to be thrashed out now. Cognisance must be retained, nonetheless, of the likelihood that there will be no quick fix to the situation. Two of the foremost memories of Dunboyne’s initial Keegan Cup success in 1998 come to mind as the scene is set for the next part of the journey:

On the Monday night after we defeated Oldcastle, somehow, we found a quiet corner in the midst of the madness and Andy simply said to me “I know how much it means to you”. That exchange itself meant – and still means – more to me can even be put into words. It was a quiet moment in stark contrast my favourite segment of the numerous previews in the lead up to the final, all of which were kept in scrapbooks.

I think it was Jack White, then of the Weekender who penned a piece entitled “Accurate Andy Is Focussed”. He’s that alright. The winter might seem just a little bit shorter this year!

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