When these wheels began rolling to Meath games – nearly a quarter of a century ago – Croke Park was like a second home. Entire summers seemed to be spent there. In 1991, that was nearly literally the case. The second home theory applies in another way too. The great stadium seemed to bring out the best in our teams. So many great days were enjoyed there. As was said previously, you begin to get used to these things.
Meath defender Davy Dalton
These are different times, though. The football landscape has changed. There’s no avoiding the fact that Meath slipped down the pecking order on the football scene. With last year’s league plummet proving – for many – a bridge too far.
Thus, the first expectation of Mick O’Dowd and his backroom team when they came in was to extricate the team from the lowly position in which they inherited it. This they duly achieved, with no little grit and style along the way. Particularly when one considers the bumps in the road that were encountered against Monaghan and Cavan.
As with any league campaign though, perhaps the most important thing of all was the infusion of new talent into the setup. Now, while the likes of Ciaran Lenehan or Davy Dalton could hardly be described as new, they have certainly become more established during the most recent campaign. More significant, perhaps, has been the impact made by players like Caolan Young, Eamon Wallace, David Larkin and, in particular, Mickey Newman.
Their addition to the panel and the attainment, critically, of promotion define Meath’s league campaign as a success. Or, being honest, only a partial one. Looking at matters from a different perspective, the above progress and new discoveries only partially conceal a sense of disappointment.
Go back to the opening lines of this piece. There was a time Croke Park was more familiar in one sense to Meath players and supporters than Pairc Tailteann. Such was the level they were operating at. Good runs in the championship meant plenty of time in HQ. Losing very seldom entered the mindset.
At some point, that altered. Hardly drastically, but, for this corner at least, Meath teams playing in there doesn’t feel how it used to. In some ways, trepidation has replaced expectation. While it might be difficult to pinpoint when the change occurred, for whatever reason, the All Ireland Final of 2001 against Galway is the one that continually crops into the mind.
There’s been some joy of course too, in qualifier victories over Tyrone and Mayo, last season’s conquest of Kildare and several memorable displays by different Meath Minor teams in more recent years. For whatever reason, though, the bad days now seem to outnumber the good ones in Dublin 3.
And that point leads us neatly to the recent league final against Monaghan. The sight of teams in green and gold starting games slowly is nothing new. Indeed, Sean Boylan’s sides seemed to patent being slow from the starting stalls only to finish like Dawn Approach did in the 2000 Guineas!
There wouldn’t be the same confidence in that happening nowadays however. Yet, after falling 0-01 to 1-05 in arrears, they brilliantly hauled themselves back into contention thanks to a marvellous goal from Newman after a sublime ball from Wallace, which left just four in it at the break.
Good as all that was, things got even better on the resumption when, with the aid of a majestic Davy Dalton goal (there’s unlikely to be a better one in Croke Park this year), the lead briefly changed hands. Malachy O’Rourke’s team soon regained a degree of control and though another cracking ‘major’ from Stephen Bray briefly looked like setting another Houdini act up, the Farney County conjured up another late salvo to ensure it was further headquarter heartache for Meath!
Disappointing as that undoubtedly was, taken in a broader context, Meath’s National League campaign for 2013 would have to be considered a successful one. While further improvement will of course be required if they are to maintain competitiveness going up a step next term, at least they are in a position to do so. More importantly, the bit of momentum gathered will do them no harm at all as the championship journey is about to begin.
To conclude on a lighter note, the redrawing of the Irish Rail timetables might make the train journey to Croke Park a little more adventurous, but in the meantime I’d be even more looking forward to getting the flask and sandwiches ready for either Portlaoise or Tullamore. You can take the man out of the bog, and all that!