ROLLING DOWN MEMORY LANE – EP. 4

The long and winding road back to the top

MEATH – ALL IRELAND SFC WINNERS 1996

The number of times tears have been shed over the result of a football game doesn’t stretch far beyond a handful. The most recent which can be recalled was the occasion upon which Dunboyne sunk against Simonstown Gaels faster than Basil Fawlty hit Manuel in Fawlty Towers!

No mistake will ever be made about the early such instances however. The actual very first tiime will never be forgotten. That being the day Meath played Down in the All Ireland SFC final of 1991,to be exact.

Before, during and after the gut-wrenching, heartbreaking day. That was on and off the field. Earlier in this nostalgic journey, the greatest part of that season, and for a very long time, the greatest part of my life, the four matches with Dublin, were recounted in full. Well, there can be no doubting that the concluding day of that marathon season, in many ways, still ranks among the worst this soul has put in on this here planet.

For three reasons, or four might actually be more accurate. None of us in the house got tickets – despite being in Croke Park 13 times that year. Three of them being for Kildare games, they were just making their first bit of a breakthrough under Mick O’Dwyer at the time, reaching the National League Final.

That said, their story thereafter resembled the fate which befell Meath having defeated then All Ireland champions in a similar scenario in 1975. In that both were unceremoniously dumped out of the Leinster Championship by Louth only weeks later. Even if, in Kildares case, they lost the league final to Dublin. Their being in the game in question constituted major progress for the Lilies at the time.

However, to return to point, the waterworks that September evening were accentuated, perhaps obviously, by the fact that we had lost. Then again, being honest, now, there had been tears early in that week. Initially owing to what seemed a complete scarcity of tickets. Not even An Bainisteoir himself could dig one out, right up to the night before the game.

My first hero: Colm O’Rourke – my joint-favourite Meath player of my lifetime

There’s nearly a modicum of guilt in admitting that the greater level of distress in the build up to the match was actually revolving around whether Colm would recover in time to make it. Apart from being my hero from the first time I’d seen him play, he was very much the beating heart of that Meath side.

Having been struck down by pneumonia in the week before the match, any ordinary person would’ve been happy just to be home to watch the game on the box. Then again, the man I often referred to as ‘God’ was as far from ordinary as this writer is from fit.

The thought has often struck that, maybe, the fact that Robbie O’Malley had already been lost for the remainder of the season having incurred a serious ankle injury in the Leinster Final against Laois played at least some part in what – with hindsight – was an insane decision to sign himself out of the hospital.

Robbie O’Malley – the finest corner back of his generation

Looking back on the situation now, it was actually lunacy. Dangerous lunacy. At the time though, there were many – this corner very much among them – decrying the fact that Sean didn’t start the school Principal and businessman.

By then, my folks had become good friends with his brother Fergus – God rest his kind and gentle soul – something I was blessed to do myself in later years. Now, on the Sunday evening of the match, when they met in their preferred haunt at the time – the unique and sadly missed Gogan’s of Dunshaughlin (it was still OK to travel to away venues back then) – Fergus was getting peppered with the obvious inquiry, “Why didn’t he start him?

To fill in a gap here, he of the iconic blue bandage did enter the fray with 20 minutes to go and nearly pulled off as big a Lazarus act for the team as he had for himself in being able to take to the field at all. In what was always thought to be an act of brotherly protectionism, Fergus pleaded that his sibling shouldn’t in fact have be on the pitch at all.

Add to that something which wasn’t realised until the full tape of the horror show was watched again for the first time in years recently. That is to say, the re-run of classic old games which Eir Sport have brilliantly put on to fill the void for those of us going through withdrawals with all current sport seemingly banned until the cows come home.

Namely, the fact that Mick Lyons succumbed to a knee injury early in the second half. It only serves to magnify the majesty of what the lads did produce after falling a dozen points in arrears. And, it has to be said, after the man who had risen from his sickbed to seemingly attempt the impossible and very, very nearly pull it off.

To gives matters some context, at that time, taking O’Malley, Lyons and O’Rourke out of the Meath team then would be the same as sending the Dublin team now – imperious and all as they currently look – to war without, say, James McCarthy, Brian Fenton and Ciaran Kilkenny. Any team, no matter who they are, can only withstand so many absences. Well and manfully as the in my opinion under-rated Alan Browne battled, the army had just lost too many generals.

Man down: Mick Lyons goes down with the injury that eventually forced him off.

A NEW JOURNEY

That day, or its aftermath, to be more truthful, was the start of a new journey. For Meath football, but also for me personally. The football side of things shall be returned to shortly, but first a little reminiscence about my own conveyance through life at that time. 1991 was a strange and in ways very difficult year for our family. Now read on…

Dad’s brother Tom passed away on March 7th. Apart from the obvious point of grieving the loss of a loved one, his death had a devastating effect on me personally. I’m not sure whether this has ever been mentioned on these pages previously but I did walk with the aid of a rollator for five years between 1986 and 1991.

The absolute highlight of which (for me anyway, I know the family may have a different view) was being able to walk down through the field which split our house from the ancestral Boylan family place – the Corner House as it will forever be to me. Being out among the cattle brought some of the happiest times of my life. Even when the fields had been closed up to ready it for hay making, a track was kept mown down through the meadow so the walking aid could get from A to B.

However, after Tom’s death, my will to walk eventually dissipated completely. Yes, there were other extenuating factors – I’d put on weight and that, combined with the neglect of my weaker left hand by those who should have known better, rendered it eventually unable to hold the walking aid so a plethora of falls duly followed.

In my mind, there’s absolutely no doubt that Tom’s death was the finishing blow that the walking sector of my life. Yet, in a poignant, almost ironic twist, the day of that All Ireland Final was the last time I took a step. Several hundred of them in fact. You see, due to a combination of indescribable heartache of not being there and what was probably the early onset of anxiety and high blood pressure, the afternoon was put in literally marching up and down under the cantilever at the front of our house, as watching the action couldn’t even be countenanced.

The only thing planting a morsel of doubt as regards finishing up walking – as in what actually prompted it – was that day. There are those who would say it was only a football match. While there’s no way similar lengths as to where Bill Shankley went in disparaging that remark would be ventured, anyone that knows me well enough will know that is, always has been and always will be so much more than merely a game to me.

This might appear very strange, but the whole lack-of-ticket debacle ended up having a far greater and longer lasting negative effect than the result of the match. Especially on the boss man of the house here. So much so that he – and as a consequence I – didn’t go near a Meath match for a long time afterwards.. Not, I think, until they qualified for a National League semi final against Derry.

Memories of that game are scatty at best. Brendan Reilly is recalled scoring a goal from a drop-kicked free kick. I think it was also the first time the great Anthony Tohill in action. What is known for sure is that it was the first time Meath had lost while wheels carrying yours truly were present. Sadly, it didn’t take long to get another dose of the experience.

Maybe luckily, very little is recalled of their shock defeat to Laois in Pairc Tailteann. The unforgettable Hughie Emerson made his debut in blue and white that day and, I think, ended up with the Man of the Match accolade.

That aside, I think one of the Turley brothers bagged two goals, but, unfortunately, what that game will be best remembered for will be the fact that Liam Hayes got sent off in what turned out be his swansong in green and gold. A sad and wholly ill-fitting end to a career in which he represented club, county, province and country with distinction.

It could hardly have been a seismic shock that in the aftermath of the Laois defeat some of the finest ever exponents of our national games in green and gold would take their leave of the biggest stage.

That in itself brought the reality that a period of transition was almost an inevitability. Assuaging fears about such a scenario causing upheaval was the fact that a number of senior and highly decorated troops had decided to soldier on. Robbie O’Malley, Martin O’Connell, Colm Coyle, PJ Gillic, David Beggy, Colm O’Rourke and Brian Stafford remained to form the core of what looked like an efficient looking team.

One bolstered by the infusion of ‘new’ talents such as Enda McManus, Graham Geraghty, Cormac ‘Spud’ Murphy, Jimmy McGuinness, Evan Kelly and Trevor Giles. And, while initial indications were in some ways encouraging – principally their capturing of the 1994 National League – the return to the top of mountain was never to be that straight forward.

Which in itself led to a lot of unwanted ‘firsts’. Mention was made earlier of how the Derry game referred to above was the first time I’d ever been present what Meath lost a game of any sort. Ditto then, obviously the Laois game in terms of championship fare. Most upsetting, though, was the admittedly foolish, immature pondering as to whether we’d ever beat Dublin again.

SPELLS OF DOMINANCE

One thing that has always characterised the Meath-Dublin rivalry has been the ability of one side to enjoy a spell of dominance over the other. Hence, for many years when I was growing up Dublin never seemed to beat Meath. Apart, that is, from 1989. And even at that it never should have happened. Kieran Duff got away with an even more blatant push in the back on Terry Ferguson than was Seamus Darby’s on Tommy Doyle.

After 1991 however, matters went full circle in the wrong direction. Thus manifesting itself in The Dubs defeating our lads three meetings in a row. Two of the squeaky bum variety and one complete freak of a result. The common denominator in all three being that Meath played good football in patches on the occasions in question only to come unstuck when it mattered most.

TRAGIC POINT

Out of the three consecutive reversals, undoubtedly 1993 hit me the hardest, in one way. Though I will – in theory at least – give lie to that statement in a few lines. However, you must understand that said occasion was the first time I’d seen Dublin beat Meath. That in itself would be upsetting enough but there were a couple of other factors which made them feel even more so.

Jack Sheedy hit a very late winner in 1993 against Meath

July 4th, 1993 was the date upon which Colm O’Rourke delivered the best display the one seeing eye here ever had the pleasure of witnessing. There is also clear recollection of Tommy Dowd, complete with broken thumb, hoisting over a whale of a point at one stage in the first half. Though it was Rourkey’s fifth trademark monster of the day – you remember them, off the left strap-clad rocket launcher, about 1,600ft into the air, descending with the accuracy of an arrow that remains the standout moment from a Meath perspective that day.

A score fit to win – or as in this case equalise – any game. As it appeared to have done until something happened which ended up in a fairly talented racehorse being humourously named. Jack Sheedy was one of my favourite Dublin players of that era, Paul Curran being the other. And that was partly due to him having relations here in Dunboyne.

Sheedy was typical of the in-vogue centre fielder of the day, more about hard running and score taking than just high fielding. Cast your mind back to the outstanding goal Liam Hayes scored against Dublin in the National League Final replay of 1988. At a more local level, Dunboyne’s Tony Byrne was similarly stylish and effective.

However, that was one occasion it was earnestly wished the man who once played his club football with Garda before transferring to Lucan Sarsfields was off the mark. For, just as Colm’s long range effort appeared to have saved the day, Sheedy went on one of the lung bursting runs he was famed for and drilled over a last minute winner.

This corner was utterly heartbroken by that particular defeat. Firstly as it was the first time I’d ever seen Dublin beat us. Also, however, because of an inescapable gut feeling that ‘God’ might retire following the result. A sense heightened by the fact that sometime afterwards, a horse called Tragic Point in the colours of Mrs Patricia O’Rourke and trained by Jim Bolger appeared at The Curragh.

Thankfully in that instance the prophecy turned to be a false one. Its falsehood aided, one suspects, by the fact that the county garnered their first and, as it turned out to be only, All Ireland U-21 FC title later that summer. Which guaranteed a fresh flow of talent would be coming through. Justifiably instilling a degree of optimism for prospects going forward.

A GREAT MAN COMETH BACK

Something which appeared to be entirely borne out when, with a mixture of old and new, The Royals qualified for the NFL Final of 1994. The game took place on May 1st. Elsewhere in the world the same day, Formula One legend Ayrton Senna was killed following an accident in Monza. Now, while their ultimately triumphing in the competition may not have been the greatest of turn ups given the composition of their team, the manner in which they achieved it certainly would’ve been considered unusual at the time.

Little or nothing is recalled of the regulations stages of that league campaign. Aside, that is, from missing the last game before the Christmas break (this was in the days when the leagues were run properly – before and after Christmas) against Louth in Dowdallshill owing to being in Temple Street for dental extraction. Of course admission time had to be 1.30. Despite my pleadings the 0-14 to 0-09 win in which Sean Kelly put in a huge shift was taken in via LMFM only.

Wounded Warrior: Bernard Flynn made a surprise and very telling return for Meath in 1994

For most people, dental extraction is a fairly routine procedure. No such luck in this seat. Anaesthetic has a horrendous effect on me. Resulting in having to stay in hospital for the best part of a week after the job was done. Be that as it may, even though only discharged on a Thursday evening, there was no way in hell I was missing the quarter final the following Sunday against Down in Croke Park.

Principally because, as far as can be recalled, the occasion marked the return of Bernard Flynn to the green and gold. The first time the dreaded words ‘cruciate ligament’ were seen or heard was when reading up on Colm O’Rourke’s travails with the horrible injury in 1976/’77. Back then, it would ‘ve been considered a career-ending impediment.

Naturally, medicine and sports science have advanced significantly in the ensuing years, but, at that time, players making it back at all – never mind operating at the top level for two decades thereafter – was almost unheard of. So, that the two-footed wizard from St Colmcille’s made it back wouldn’t have been the jaw-dropping spectacle it once might have been.

Mattie Kerrigan brought Westmeath to an NFL semi final in 1994.

After scraping past the men from the Mountains of Mourne at the last eight stage, I recall there being a great buzz around in the lead up to the penultimate flight encounter against Westhmeath. Mostly because of Summerhill’s Mattie Kerrigan being in the opposition dugout. From a personal perspective, excitement was two-fold. Courtesy of my Confirmation taking place the day before the match, April 16th 1994.

Ironically, and just totally be coincidence, the rig-out I’d chosen for my big day was – you’ve guessed it – maroon and white. Even Bishop Michael Smith, while bestowing the sacrament whispered in my ear “I hope you’re not wearing the same colours tomorrow”. He’d no worries on that score, but, unsurprisingly, given the level of intelligence he possessed on those from his native land, Kerrigan’s charges caused their more illustrious neighbours no end of problems.

I’d never seen Westmeath play but it was obvious they had a few very decent operators in their armory. While their improvement under the wily old fox directing matters on the sideline would be absolutely no shock, accomplishing the usurpation of the then All Ireland champions Derry in Breffni Park did take their doings and profile to a whole new level.

Caution regarding the challenge those from the Lake County were likely to present transpired to be wholly merited. Players such as Mick ‘Spike’ Fagan, Tom Ormsby, Ger Heavin, Larry Giles and the unmistakable figure of Noel Lynch with his shock of blonde hair had been soldiering without reward for years.

For a team like Westmeath, attaining promotion from Div. 4 would have represented commendable advancement in itself. But even though the green and gold eventually won through by 0-15 to 0-11 that day was actually another progressive step in what turned out to be arguably the most bountiful period in Westmeath’s history.

As for Meath, their reward for navigating a way past their neighbours was a meeting with Armagh. An Orchard County outfit that were just showing signs of emerging as the force they would be for the best part of a decade.

For me at least, it was the first time seeing a player who would not only become one of my favourite players of that or any generation – Kieran McGeeney. The day, however, ended up being all about Bernard Flyņn.

The opening stanzas of the game – after the veteran Kieran McGuirke had given Jim McCorry’s charges an early lead with a wonderful solo score – was like a throwback to when Sean Boylan’s first magnificent assembly were virtually unplayable between 1986 and 1991.

PJ Gillic and Jimmy McGuinness dominated the skies, Graham Geraghty displayed some of the attacking flair that would eventually see him converted into one of the best forwards the game has seen, and to observe O’Rourke, Flynn (who netted two goals in quick succession to kill the game off as a contest) and Tommy Dowd operate in tandem was to be put in a time portal and lifted back to the long, mostly glorious summer of ’91.

NEW RIVALRIES

The mid 1990s saw Meath drawn into some new rivalries. At least one of which tended to be tempestuous in nature, to put it mildly. Between 1993 and 1994 Meath and Laois must have crossed swords at least a half dozen times encompassing O’Byrne Cup, League and Championship outings. As often tends to be the case in these situations, the more they met, the less the seemed to like each other.

In the one that mattered most, though, Meath delivered the type of display which every manager dreams of – highly efficient yet with plenty to work on. With the home side having began their summer campaign with a 0-20 to 2-10 win. Reward for which was a semi final meeting with Wexford. My standout memory from that particular game was a brilliant goal by David Beggy in what may well have been his last piece of action in a Meath jersey.

Graham Geraghty was simply too good to be left in the Meath defence

For whatever reason, confidence was relatively high going into the 1994 Leinster Final. Possibly owing to spirits being buoyed somewhat by the National League victory. A long way into the game it appeared said optimism was justified when a Graham Geraghty goal midway through the second period seemed to have laid the foundations for the sixth provincial title of Sean Boylan’s tenure. But…

A TALE OF TWO GOALKEEPERS

To almost completely contradict the statement beginning the last paragraph, in the week leading up to the match, the nearer it got to showtime, the more anxious and apprehensive the feeling became. The world works in mysterious ways and, when it emerged days out from the fixture that Donal Smyth had been dropped from the panel altogether and Mickey McQuillan brought out of retirement to face the old foes one more time.

Mickey McQuillan: An unfortunate end to a great career

Alas, there’s an old saying that you’re only as good as your last game. The dictum surely applies to goalkeepers above all other players. Thus, all Mickey’s years of loyal service, when his dependability was the rock upon which many of his team’s most glorious days were founded, counted for nothing. With some at least.

It was a very unfortunate end to a truly great career. One which never truly got the illumination it deserved. He was the most unsung of unsung heroes in a team of the game’s greats. Yet, one ball, one harmless looking dropping ball which he could and would have dealt with 99 times out of 100. The worst part of it all was, Charlie Redmond didn’t even hit the free in question well at all. The wind and driving rain caught hold of it and deceived the veteran custodian.

John O’Leary was the best goalkeeper I’d ever seen until the current Dublin No. 1 arrived. But he should definitely have walked in the ’94 Leinster Final.

When you’re a goalkeeper, the distance between one set of posts and the other must often seem galactic. Just ask McQuillan. While he endured a horror moment in front of Hill 16, the hometown hero sailed that close to the wind when stationed thence that it must have nearly taken even the burly frame of the O’Dwyers clubman into orbit.

Don’t get me wrong, John O’Leary was the best goalkeeper I’d ever seen and my favourite before the current Dublin netminder arrived on the scene. In fact, I’d say if it came to down to it, the Balbriggan man’s side would probably still be taken. Admittedly out of sentimentality. Due to a feeling to a feeling the bank official was every bit as influential to his Dublin team as Stephen Cluxton is to the current incarnation. Even more so, mind you, as he played in an era when the game was played the way it should be.

That is not, by the way, a sleight on the current Dublin team in any way. They are the best outfit to have ever played the game collectively. It’s highly unlikely their achievements will be equaled in my lifetime or anybody else’s, never mind surpassed. No, the origin of the malaise which has afflicted Gaelic football for far too long can be traced directly to the North West of the country.

Please forgive the digression. For all the long serving numero uno was admired, though, he should definitely have got gate in the 1994 Leinster Final. If running nearly 30 yards out of your goal and lasooing a player to the ground by the neck isn’t a sending off, or wasn’t then, when the game was played in a more manly way, I don’t know what is.

And, no matter what way anyone might try to dress it up, that was the pivotal moment in the game. In researching for this episode, it was noticed that Meath actually played Dublin in the 1994/’95 National League. If the old memory box is doing its job properly, it may actually have been in the first round thereof. That being the case, I have a very clear recollection of Alan Browne from Walterstown having a fine game on the ’40’.

Now, they didn’t progress to the knockout stages of the league, but, sometimes, consolidation represents a good enough Spring’s work in itself. And yet, leaving Colm O’Rourke out for the Championship opener against Offaly gave yours truly, at least, the whiff that something wasn’t right. Yes, he was 38, and yes he did come on that day and score a brilliant goal, but, the point is, it had never been known for leaving the great man out to even enter calculations.

It turned out that the aforementioned goal was his last score in a Meath jersey in Pairc Tailteann.

It was entirely appropriate then, that the score was fashioned via some wonderful combination play with his long time sidekick, Brian Stafford. Hardly surprisingly, he started next time out against Longford, bagging 1-2 again.

Again, when taking on Wicklow, he accumulated the same tally of scores for the third game in a row. The manner in which they had, eventually in the case of the Offaly game, won their three games easily left expectations sky high going into the final. Which, and this was something that would strike Meath again a half dozen years later, the easy route through to the final was actually the worst thing that ever happened to them.

I remember the day of the game being an absolute scorcher. That whole summer was. It actually started very well for our lads. My favourite left boot lofted over what turned to be its final brace of scores on county duty in the first half and in so doing left the prospects for which they were working very nicely placed.

A situation which appeared to get infinitely better immediately after the restart when firstly Evan Kelly go on the end of a passing move and palmed to the net. Something special appeared to be on seconds later when Graham Geraghty drove over a long range point to give Meath the lead for the first but sadly only time in the match. Within seconds, what can only be described as the nearest to a sporting apocalypse I’ve ever seen began unfolding before my one seeing eye.

Possibly due to utter shock, not much is remembered of the beginning of the barrage of Dublin scores. But, it was clear once a fortuitous Paul Clarke goal went in, it was clear the day was wasn’t going to end well, to put it mildly. The closing stages passed by in something of a blur. Of what was going on out on the pitch, all that’s recalled is current Dublin manager Dessie Farrell being the chief conductor of the orchestra.

What’s remembered with much more clarity is being in floods of tears at the full time whistle. For a multiplicity of reasons. Simply because we lost. The manner of the defeat. Wondering would we ever beat them again. And, perhaps mostly, knowimg the blue bandage would be hung up for the last time.

Yet even in the midst of the most upset I’d ever been at or about a match, there was a moment which encapsulated everything that’s great about the GAA. I’d met Paul Curran in the week leading up to the match. I’d been ‘working’ at the Leinster GAA Summer Camp up in the local pitch. In other words, water bottles, flags and the like on my lap.

Paul Curran is a half Meath man with close links to Dunboyne

As is customary with these things, a number of county players visited the Camp during the week. It was in such a setting a year prior to meeting the Thomas Davis clubman that the acquaintance of Mr O’Rourke was first made. On that occasion, I actually presented him with a copy of a ‘book’ that had been keyboarded over the course of a few months. A biography of sorts. Time has proven the manuscript to be so error strewn I’d nearly be embarrassed by it. But it is often wondered is the copy of it still on a shelf somewhere near Simonstown!

Anyway, the Thursday morning the Dublin wing back arrived out, when he’d fulfilled whatever obligations were detailed, he sat talking to me for a long time. His surprise at somebody my age knowing of his father – the late Noel, All Ireland winner with Meath in 1967 – changed to disbelief when he was told I knew his Dunboyne cousins – the Hartnett family – very well.

When the time came for us to part, he promised me faithfully that, win lose or draw, he’d come down to see me in the wheelchair section after the match. And he was indeed true to his word. He came down, no trophy, no triumphalism. Just genuine decency. It’s something that will stay with me as long as wheels carrying me keep turning.

A man I was truly proud to call a friend for many years – as passionate a GAA man as I’ve ever known: The late Shane McEntee TD

A LONG, HOT, UPSETTING SUMMER

Mention was made earlier of how the summer of 1995 was a particularly glorious one, in terms of weather at least. In a few other ways, though, it was a pretty upsetting one. Anyone who has been visiting this space for long enough will surely know of my interesting in and passion for farming. However, if there was ever a year I didn’t enjoy it, that was ’95.

On the day Jason Sherlock scored his memorable goal against Laois – when his boot flew off – there were so many wheelchairs in Pairc Tailteann that the only parking berth available was beside the corner flag at the hospital end of the old ground. That was uncomfortable enough, but, to say there was disappointment upon returning home to discover that the hay had been baled and drawn in wouldn’t go within stratospheres of conveying the disconsolate feeling. Especially because it was known it was going to be the last crop taken off the home place.

Sadly we know what way the Leinster final turned out a few weeks later. So, the scholarship I’d been awarded to the Donegal Gaelteacht couldn’t have come at a better time. We were into the north west the next morning. Most people go for stints of three weeks to a month, but, due to circumstance, a week did for me.

You couldn’t credit it, mind you, that during the week we were away, ALL of the spots I’d venture to in following the harvest had been dealt with. I’d safely say it was the only time in the near four decades there’s been a pulse here that none of either the hay making or the harvest were taken in. God willing, that will never happen again

To compound everything, matters on the football front did nothing to brighten the horizon either. For what I think was only the second time in his long and success-laden tenure, Sean Boylan had to face down a challenge – from the late Shane McEntee – instead of what would normally be a routine rubber stamping exercise. More than that, it spoke volumes for the appetite for change there was in the county when the very popular and desperately missed Nobber native got within a dozen votes of my legendary neighbour.

Glory Days: Sean led the county to four All Irelands with three different Meath teams

Action on the club scene did nothing to improve one’s humour either. Certainly not from a Dunboyne perspective anyway. We had made a great start to the Meath SFC, but our team was decimated when seven of the lads went to the US for the summer. The good start had earned them a quarter final berth, but, bereft of the emigrants they were no match for a Kilmainhamwood team on the up at the time.

I think it was around then that da first of told me the story of Meath’s fortunes in the early stages of the 1966/’67 season. At some point around that time, Kildare gave those in green and gold an unmerciful hiding. Meaning that the chatter on the way out of Newbridge that day was to the effect that it’d be a long time before they’d be in a Leinster Final again.

What happened next? Looking back the parallels between the county’s third Sam Maguire victory and their doubling of that number are striking. In both cases, the team had been knocking on the door for a few seasons. They both, also, suffered potentially demoralising defeats before eventually going on to top the pile.

Perhaps the main difference between the pair of cases was the following. Whereas in the mid to late ’60’s it would’ve been considered we had a settled and talented team, going into 1996, it was obvious fairly major remedial surgery would be required as some of the greatest players this county ever produced took their leave of the big stage.

Expectations were at what must have considered an all time low for the county. With many predicting that Carlow could overturn them at the opening hurdle. Seemingly the one person who had faith in where they were going was, in fact, the most important one of all – the little general on the sideline.

Darren Fay: One of seven U-21s on the Meath panel in 1996 – he continued the county’s tradition of producing the best full backs in the game

Years later when interviewing Sean for a booklet to accompany a fundraiser for our club, talk came around to 1996. To the rest of the country – even to most loyal Royals – their outright triumph that year was a complete bolt from the blue. Sean, however, had a different view.

“One night towards the end of January, on the way home from training, I said to Dennis Murtagh, with any bit of luck this year we could win the All Ireland” –

SEAN BOYLAN

He left me with this nugget which will forever be treasured: “One night towards the end of January, on the way home from training, I said to Dennis Murtagh (One of his my loyal and trusted Lieutenants) with any bit of luck this year, we could win the All Ireland”. With judgement like that is it any wonder he is thought of with near Divine reverence!

Undoubtedly, one of the most significant moves he made, not just of that year but in the history of Meath football, was transfeŗring two of his best defenders – Graham Geraghty and Brendan Reilly – into the forwards.

A league quarter final against Mayo in Dr Hyde Park was the first ocassion on which the two lads were trialled up front. Brenny scored Meath’s only goal that day and the blonde bombshell sent over some fine scores too.

Still, among the learned, much of the focus seemed to be on the fact that we’d lost to a Mayo team then stationed in Div. 4. To the extent that, on the way out of the Roscommon venue, the following was heard, being said very audibly and most obviously for my benefit: “Sure you’d never win anything with that Reilly on the team”.

A man for the big occasion: Tommy Dowd hit 1-3 in the All Ireland Final replay.

We in Dunboyne had become used and immune to hearing such jibes. Or the other infamous one – and it didn’t matter whether it was Brendan Reilly or Enda McManus or Nigel Crawford or David Gallagher or Tommy O’Connor, they were all “Only there because they were from Dunboyne”. In some quarters, similar nonsense is floating around due to current circumstances, but is equally hideous.

ONE NIGHT IN SKRYNE

About three weeks before the 1996 Leinster SFC began for Meath, they played Monaghan in a challenge match in Fr McManus Park in Skryne. In a benefit match for former Skryne and Meath goalkeeper, the late Paddy Cromwell. It’s hard to know which was the bigger talking point, the fact that Colm O’Rourke came out of retirement for the occasion – which led to the predictable flurry of speculation as to whether he was going to come back (alas not) – or the sight of Brendan Reilly stationed at full forward for the first time.

Brendan Reilly’s deployment at full-forward was one of the best positional switches ever made

Unfortunately, but not surprisingly, there were a few of the usual snide comments when the team team took to the pitch first. “Reilly at full forward? I wouldn’t give him (number) 24”. When the individual spouting the dross was challenged about his bovine excrement, he had this wonderful reply – “I suppose you’re from Dunboyne and came down in the car with him”. More of that anon…

It turned out that the 15 which started the challenge against Monaghan was the same as lined out to face Carlow a few weeks thereafter. In actual fact, there was only one alteration to the starting team over the course of the six matches. And even at that, Evan Kelly was probably quite unlucky to lose out to Colm Brady for the All Ireland Final replay.

Colm Brady (centre) started in the replay against Mayo

RACING CERTAINTIES

Considering that there was genuine clamour before the game that Carlow might, in fact, wipe Meath’s eye, it says a lot of how wide of the mark that turned out to be that the main talking point from the game was the fact that it happened to be Tony O’Hehir on duty in the commentary box. There are many sporting dynasties in Ireland, and the O’Hehir production line of sports commentators deserves to rank among the highest of them.

Tony O’Hehir (right) pictured in more familiar surroundings with Willie Mullins at Leopardstown

Wouldn’t you know. Tony’s monotonous, sleep-inducing tone turned out to be pretty perfect for the fixture. Especially as it was clear after about three furlongs of the contest that Meath were racing certainties to progress. Which they duly did, on a scoreline of 0-24 to 0-06. Such a vacuum between the times would leave the form of the outcome looking questionable at best. Against that, though, the fact the Barrowsiders had drawn with Laois the previous summer gave some indication of what they were capable of.

One thing that was absolutely certain, mind you, was that there would be absolutely no way Boylan’s brigade would take their opponents lightly. They couldn’t afford to. Meath didn’t have many bogey teams round then, but if there were two that put them into more sticky situations than anybody else, they were certainly Derry and Laois.

Again, regrettably, not a whole lot is remembered from the Laois game. Aside, that is, from Brendan Reilly dispatching a goal very early on which set the tone for the remainder of the day as a fairly comfortable win was filed away by the end. All of which of course meant a third Leinster final in a row. A fourth consecutive meeting with Dublin.

NOW WE’VE REALLY MADE A BREAKTHROUGH

This hack surely wasn’t alone in being possessed of a sense foreboding before tackling them again. How could enough have changed in a year to erase the galling, painful scar tissue of the embarrassing episode less than a year earlier.

Especially in light of the Meath team’s composition having altered so drastically in the meantime. Most of Meath’s greenhorns had never even played against Dublin before, never mind defeated them. Seeing the rain pelting down on match day only added to the apprehension as gut feeling was that our youmger, lighter, greener representatives would be bullied out of it by their more streetwise, battle-hardened opponents.

However, sometimes it pays to observe through a different lens. Because many of them had played against them before, they didn’t have the hangover baggage that some of the older soldiers were encumberred with.

So they thought nothing of goimg out and tearing into what by then was an aging and ailing sky blue brigade. Trailing by a couple of points at half time against the Dubs was nothing new to a Meath group either.

Every game has its pivotal moments, mind you. That day, it was a case of history going within a scintilla of repeating itself. Cast your mind back to the concluding chapter in the saga of five years beforehand.

Where then it was Keith Barr and Eamon Heery trying to make a sandwich of Colm O’Rourke, this time attempts were at turning Tommy Dowd into a chopping block! Someone once told me that the great Dunderry man’s nickname was ‘Tyson’, if such is the case, surely it stems from that day.

Wherever it came from, the attempted hatchet job failed miserably. Not only that, it seemed to inspire this new wave of Royal warriors, while re-invigorating some of the more decorated troops. None more so than the man who was the intended target of the axe!

There was something reassuring and exciting about the moments which put the seal on the county’s first provincial title in a handful of years. Midfielders Jimmy McGuinness and John McDermott combined to set the bloodied but unbowed skipper up for the score which put them in front with minutes remaining.

Battle Scarred: The first trophy collection of ’96

Wasn’t it almost fitting, too, that it was the captain himself who did the spade work for not only one of the new brigade, but, his fellow Dunderry clubman Barry Callaghan, to flash over the insurance score in stoppage time.

BONUS TERRITORY

I’ve always felt that, if a provincial title is in the satchel, anything which is garnered thereafter can be considered bonus territory. That is not to disrespect the rest of the competition, of course not. Everyone wants to be King for a day. Sitting atop the province brings status with it though. Especially if you happen to overcome Dublin in pursuit of same. Certainly from a Meath perspective, our teams are generally, and rightly, judged by their doings against our oldest rivals. That of course doesn’t make for pretty reading in current circumstances, but, in that case, I think they are entitled to a bit of slack. Most teams are at present because there are few if any entities capable of living with the current Dublin group.

Speaking of which, there were many, myself included, who wondered would Meath be capable of living with Tyrone at that time. Remember, this was a Tyrone team who could have beaten Dublin in the All Ireland Final the previous year. They should have at least taken it to a replay but didn’t get the chance because the referee in question did what he always did – made a balls of the crucial decision in the game.

Peter Canavan’s pass to Sean McLoughlin was clearly legitimate, but a free out was awarded for it being off the ground before the half back had slotted over the ‘equalising’ point. It’s worth bearing in mind that the same individual couldn’t even send a player off properly, at times.

Thankfully it turned out that it wouldn’t mattered if the devil himself had the whistle. When asked in the interview referred to earlier, when asked what was display a team had produced under his stewardship, without hesitation, the reply came “League Final replay, 1988”. That was the occasion when there was a yawning gap between the draw and Act II as Meath were in Florida on the holiday they had earned by winning Sam the previous year.

The last fact alluded to allowed the proliferation of a school of thought which implied that double chasers would be ripe for the picking upon their return. But, what those pinning their hopes on such erroneous calculations couldn’t have known was that the herbalist had been training the lads extensively (seemingly that’s completely underselling the situation)

Which is why they were able to deliver the class of performance Sean was so enthused about as a 2-13 to 0-11 victory was recorded. Contained therein were goals from 19-year-old Brendan Reilly and also Liam Hayes. The latter strike surely would have been regarded as the greatest Meath goal of all time were it not usurped be a certain other ‘major’ three years later.

For me, our obliteration of Tyrone deserves placing on a similar plateau. Graham Geraghty’s first half goal was a thing of beauty, Reilly’s display that afternoon was surely his best ever in a green jersey, while a sterling defensive effort never got the commendation it deserved as Martin O’Connell was unfairly and unnecessarily vilified.

An icon among his people – Martin O’Connell is carried shoulder high after the All Ireland Final Replay

The All Ireland Final was new territory. For 11 of Meath’s starting 15. O’Connell, Colm Coyle, Dowd and Reilly being the exceptions.

Being honest, very little is recalled of the drawn game. Part of that was undoubtedly down to nervous excitement on my part. Final days were or are never my favourite. Due to the noise and the expectation and the tension.

I had been to a couple of All Ireland finals previously, Donegal’s win in 1992 and that of Derry which came the following year. Being there with our own in the main event, however, was a new experience for me.

One which, to a large extent, passed me by. Apart from a few factors. Brendan Reilly having another fine outing, contributing 0-3, John McDermott notching his only score, I think, of that entire championship and – it must be said – the excellence of Mayo’s James Horan.

Not forgetting, of course, that Ray Dempsey appeared to have won it for the green and red courtesy of an outstanding goal, only for Coyler’s amazing equaliser to grant our lads anotther day out. Thing is, his speculative effort screamed echoes of PJ Gillic’s salvation earning score at the end of the opening verse of the saga with Dublin.

To the extent that, where Tommy Dowd was within inches of bursting that baloon before it even became airborne, Mark O’Reilly was, eerily similarly, a fraction away from doing with the need for a replay.

Inches, how often have you heard mention of them in this space? Inches. If the Summerhill man gets any sort of touch on the ball: no draw, no replay, no brawl, and a completely different version of history.

That said, would I swap it for the way it turned out? Not on your life. Whatever the drawn game being a blur, every kick, every pass and every breaking ball of the replay can be recalled and almost felt as if watching it in realtime again.

From the now infamous awkwardness in front of the goals at the Railway End, to the immense performance from Mayo’s Horan once more and a wonderful goal from their substitute PJ Loftus put them in a seemingly unassailable position.

But then, this was Meath and Mayo you were talking about. Two teams with polar opposite characteristics when faced with the pressure cooker. Back then anyway.

There was a grossly unfair line being peddled in the aftermath of the handbags that Colm Coyle wasn’t as big a loss to our lads as Liam McHale was to Mayo. Utter bull.

Nobody could or would attempt to downplay the Ballina man’s prowess. Not only as a footballer, but a multi-talented sportsman. Basketball is one of my favourite other diciplines and McHale, his brothers and Kevin McStay played a huge role in that. Back in the days when the National Cup was given the coverage it deserves and merits.

All that, however, cannot detract from the fact that Coyle – as versatile, whole hearted and dedicated a servant as this county ever produced – was constantly undervalued as a player by those outside Meath.

One thing that was known though was that our lads were well able to adapt to operating a man down. In my opinion, the major turning point came within seconds of Loftus hitting the Meath net. By way of Trevor Giles converting the best penalty I or many more seasoned observers had ever witnessed.

Its conversion left Meath trailing by four points at half time. Having been down this road with our lads so many times before, there was no panic. Knowing that they would have the aid of what was a very stiff breeze in the second period onl y bolstered the sense of confidence, in this seat at least!

Still, the wind has never won or lost a game for anyone. It was, however, a matter of game management. At that time, there were few if any better than my namesake at it.

Seeing Tommy and Trevor point within seconds of the restart reinforced inclinations that the ship was still on course. Whatever about having the nous to deal with adversity, those of us who have shared the rollercoaster ride that has been being a Meath fan for the past few decades have grown accustomed to our teams not doing things the easy way.

Accustomed maybe, but no better equipped to deal with it! Thus, even when a Dowd goal after a quickly taken Graham Geraghty free gave them a one point lead, while disappointing, it was actually unsurprising that John Maughan’s men would go downfield and get another leveller.

Indeed it was they who looked the more likely to drive on and get a winner. Until, that is, their reliance on handpassing undid them. Trevor Giles breaking up one of their pedantic advancements before sliding an inviting ball down in Reilly’s direction.

Dunboyne’s hero had an inordinate amount of work to do. Even after Ken Mortimer had a slip to rival anything Steven Gerrard did against Chelsea, “Buller” still had to manufacture an angle from which the shot would even be kickable. And, at that, it would have to be off his less efficient left peg.

As we now know, he accomplished it all. Writing himself into the history books and enabling one of my lifelong dreams come true in the process. Not even that late in the game and the season could it be straightforward, mind you.

In kicking the score, Brendan incurred a groin injury which not only cost Dunboyne dearly that season but impacted upon the remainder of his career with club and county.

Of more immediate concern that day, however, was closing out the job. Something not aided by Jimmy McGuinness seemingly looking to see was there many from Dunsany in the Hogan Stand (sorry Boots!) allowing Mayo sub Tom Reilly come from behind him, effect the steal and set about rescuing the Westerners one more time.

Lucily for Meath, their penchant for dithering manifested itself for just long enough to allow Martin O’Connell repel their final raid and drive the ball into the viewing area referred to above and put the seal on Sam Maguire triumph number six.

FOGRA: D’ya remember the lad at the match in Skryne who said he “Wouldn’t give Reilly No. 24”, well now, didn’t the same fella meet the same Dunboyne man out on the pitch celebrating. And wasn’t he Brenny’s first cousin! It’s a long road that has no turn…

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