By Brendan Boylan,
Former Clare goalkeeper and acclaimed writer Christy O’Connor recently wrote an article, the headline over which was the following: ‘Directors have major role to play in the progression of most counties’. In the piece, O’Connor highlights the example of John Evans, who, in his role as Director of Football in the Premier County, oversaw commendable progress in the big ball code which yielded an All Ireland title at Minor and a provincial one at U-21 for Tipperary.
Later in the same piece, Meath’s poor recent record at underage level was mentioned. With the exception of Leinster MFC titles in 2006 and 2008, it looks very bleak. 1992 was the last time the Tom Markham Cup (All Ireland MFC) rested by the Boyne. Only one All Ireland U-21 title in our history (1993) and no provincial title in that grade since 2001. And of that team, only David Gallagher, Seamus Kenny and Stephen Bray remain involved with the county team.
Not wanting to get carried away with negativity, the point must be made that players like Brian Farrell, Joe Sheridan, Kevin Reilly, Caoimhin King, Shane O’Rourke, Chris O’Connor, Cian Ward, Brian Meade and Bryan Menton – doubtless there are others whom I cannot recall – graduated from talented underage teams who weren’t lucky enough to taste success. The stream of talent has been flowing too sporadically however, and nowhere near strong enough to leave Meath in a position to realistically compete with teams such as Dublin and Kerry and Cork and Tyrone, which should be the aim at the very least.
When you consider some of the undoubtedly talented players already mentioned in this column, that Meath currently reside in football’s second tier must point to something more than meets the eye. Underage shortcomings has to be the obvious answer. In the build up to last year’s All Ireland MFC Final, the point was repeatedly made that Dublin hadn’t won the All Ireland MFC since 1984. They still haven’t – and lost out in the curtain raiser on Hurling final day too – but any disappointment felt about that should be offset by the significant achievement it was to get both teams into finals.
Furthermore, Jim Gavin’s U-21 team have blazed a merciless trail through their Leinster Championship. That’s no coincidence. It indicates continuity. The kind which Kilkenny and Tyrone have enshrined over the years. Starting with development squads at U-14 and U-16 and ensuring players in a position to make it all the way to Senior. Results from both counties amply articulate the merits of such groundwork. Albeit somewhat belatedly, Dublin have now begun to make similar progress and that has to be ominous for rest of Leinster and Ireland in terms of the likelihood of them dominating going forward.
I – and many more eminent observers – have been commenting for a long time on the need for a dramatic overhaul of underage structures in the county. Therefore, it’s baffling, disillusioning and disheartening to see an opportunity to make some progress in this regard has been coughed up by the powers that by. Usually, when Sean Boylan speaks, the GAA world listens. There have been numerous examples of it over the years – most recently when the Dublin-Mayo NFL game was rescheduled to accommodate the Interprovincial Series. Evidently, and very sadly, very close to home recently, there hasn’t been a process of engagement with the four time All Ireland winning manager, never mind anyone listening to him! As well as being difficult to fathom and stomach the fact that Sean’s appointment as Director of Football basically wasn’t acted upon at all, it also acts as a stern warning that there’s a drastic need to look where we’re going in terms of the future of Meath GAA on a broader scale.
What makes it all the more difficult to digest is knowing what many people in other places would give to be able to call somebody like Sean Boylan one of their own and be able to avail of his services. Yet, for whatever reason, noses were turned up at the opportunity very close to home.
Aside from development squads – the benefits of which have been illustrated by the counties mentioning earlier – coaching structures in schools and links between schools and clubs, not to mention some form of continuity regarding team selections and those who pick teams are just some of the initiatives Sean could have led in his role. But a glorious and much needed opportunity to move things forward has been wasted.
Meath U-21 manager Liam Harnan said nothing positive could come fr5om his team’s defeat to Offaly earlier this year. Now, I couldn’t quite subscribe to such a negative assessment, good players can and will emerge from any team. There’s no doubt Meath’s competitiveness levels have slipped in many places in recent years though.
The Meath Minor recently lost to Dublin in the Leinster MFL. It was, in fairness, their first defeat of the season, but it underlined the stranglehold Dublin have in many areas. Hopefully Andy McEntee’s team will still enjoy a successful Championship season. The county needs it, and improvement across the entire underage scene. It might have been achieved a little easier with Sean Boylan steering the ship.