Tuesday, August 04, 2009

By Royal Command: A Football Lesson in Meath

Mayo’s quarter-final encounter with Meath this weekend brings back all sorts of bittersweet memories of times gone by. But An Spailpín’s abiding insight into Meath football when the Royals were at their pomp wasn’t in 1996 but one year after, when Mayo’s current run of misery against Kerry began.

Four of us were travelling home to Galway on that grey evening after the All-Ireland Final of 1997 – three broken-hearted Mayomen, and one half-Kerryman who, as Maurice Fitzgerald’s greatest fan, then and now, was in a state of bliss that would last well into the winter.

By eight o’clock, it was becoming obvious that there was no way we were going to be back in time to see the Sunday Game and, as noted in this space before, you have to see the Sunday Game on All-Ireland Sunday night to make the experience complete.

1997 was before the current era of road-building and your correspondent was taking the common shortcut at that time, through Summerhill and Ballivor to emerge somewhere between Kinnegad and Mullingar. As we reached nine o’clock and counting, it became obvious that we would have to stop and catch the highlights on Royal ground.

We got a warm welcome in whatever bar it was we were in, and appeased the local gods by buying tickets for the local club lotto. We watched in teary misery as Maurice Fitzgerald popped up over again and again on the Sunday Game, much to the amusement of the locals.

“Maurice Fitzgerald wouldn’t have scored that against us,” they liked to remark after every point Mossie stroked over. Nobody cracked their knuckles, but we knew full well what they meant. Martin O’Connell had taken his famous stand on Brian Dooher only thirteen months before, and it tended to stay in the memory.

But what intrigues An Spailpín now, on the eve of this weekend’s renewed hostilities, is that four years on from that night in Ballivor Padraic Joyce did to Meath exactly what Maurice Fitzgerald had done to Mayo. Joyce beat them on his own. Ten points he scored that day, and Meath have never recovered. No Leinster titles since, no All-Ireland glory. Classy looking forwards but a bit on the beefy side. No John McDermott in midfield, and no backs as flat-out dangerous as were those bad, bad men of the ‘eighties – Harnan, Foley, Lyons.

The big question in Mayo concerns who’ll replace full-forward Barry Moran, whom Kevin McStay said on the Sunday Game would definitely not start due to injury. The temptation must be to play Aiden O’Shea at full-forward and start Conor Mortimer in the corner, but that changes the shape of the team and limits the type of ball that can be sent in. Starting Tom Parsons is a daring option and would be An Spailpín Fánach’s second choice. Hard to believe a use can’t be found for a player of such class.

An Spailpín’s first choice would be Ciarán McDonald in the inside line, of course. Mike McCarthy’s recent performances for Kerry would suggest that maybe being two years away from the county scene doesn’t really dull the edge all that much, and An Spailpín Fánach just cannot believe that McDonald has nothing left to contribute. But we shall see, of course.

Finally, either county would be foolish indeed to believe Colm O’Rourke’s proposition on TV at the end of the Dublin v Kerry game that neither Meath nor Mayo could beat Kerry. Colm didn't think Kerry would beat Dublin either, and we all saw how that worked out. Both Mayo and Meath should embrace the chance of taking on Kerry at the end of the month.

It’s a question of if you want to live your life on your feet or on your knees. It’s not about being able to take the heat – it’s about wanting the heat, so that you can finally see who you really are. Whichever team has the most players who licked their lips in anticipation at the prospect of facing Kerry will win on Sunday. Simple as that.

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