Castleblaney is one GAA pitch which, if you’ve been in it, you’re unlikely to forget. There are a few of similar ilk in Meath – #Nobber and #Simonstown and #Donore and the old field in #Kells stand comparison. Similarities being that the playing surfaces are well below the area from which spectators view.
Wheels transporting yours truly made two trips to the Monaghan venue in 1993, for the drawn and replayed All Ireland U-21 FC semi final between Meath and Derry. An admittedly vague memory has always endured of another significant fixture involving a Meath team transpiring in the Farney County around that time.
The memory is still in fair good nick. It was an All Ireland SHC quarter final between Meath and Antrim. Hurling in these parts was in a good place then. That they were in the said fixture was on foot of winning the All Ireland SHC B. The aforementioned was a rather curiously run competition in which the eventual overall winners beat London in the final in Ruislip before then defeating Westmeath in a ‘home’ final. So good they won it twice!
How ironic that seems now. On that team were some great hurlers such as Mark Gannon, Paddy Kelly, John Andrews, John Gorry, Pat Potterton, David ‘Scobie’ Martin, the Donnellys of Kilmessan and the Murray brothers, Declan and Benny, if memory serves correct. Following on from that, league victories were annexed over Offaly and Wexford.
Sometimes, success needs to be measured by different scales. In the early 2000s, Meath contested a number of All Ireland MHC B finals and, though defeat was their lot, the point was consistently adhered to that, by way of contesting finals and competing to a high level, in context, had to bode well for the future.
And indeed it did. 2009 saw many of those who had been involved in those underage games catapult the Neil Hackett captained garner the Nicky Rackard Cup. Thereafter, they held their own at the next highest level, while luck – or a dearth thereof – was all that prevented them from bettering their league standing.
What’s indisputable is that, from the time of the Croke Park victory seven years ago, it could justifiably be claimed that Meath hurling has been on an upward curve. This corner would openly admit to being extremely superstitious. Thus, when Kildare – who had been something of a bogey outfit for Royal stickmen – were negotiated at the penultimate hurdle, belief began to rise that something special may be afoot.
Historically, Meath teams have always been at their most dangerous when written off. Now rewind a few weeks. When Martin Ennis’s side initially tackled Antrim some weeks ago, the Glensmen was chalked up as 1/6 favourites. They duly started as such, mirroring Annie Power’s saunter to the Champion Hurdle last March, before Meath replicated Minding in the Epsom Oaks with a revival of pure skill, graft and heart. Only for it to be – as was feared here at the time – rendered futile by the inexplicable incompetence of the officiating officialdom.
Heart. For so long the core element of the staple diet of all Meath teams. Yet something that has alarmingly diminished in some instances. As was garishly exposed to very upsetting degrees in certain places not all that long ago. A sobering reality check. Which gave credence to the old maxim ‘What a difference a day makes’.
Act II of Meath-Antrim 2016 again bore the hallmarks of the way it used to be for Meath teams in Croke Park. Not that letting teams amass big leads against them was by the design, but, over the years, the green and gold had specialised in such retrieval missions. Considered opinion was that the underdog got their day in the sun. Thing was, nobody told the players, management or fans!
Again, the Ulster side hared off into a lead. Again, they were hauled back. Once more and once more. Over the years, there’s often been whiffs of controversy surrounding Meath successes. Sometimes unjustified and often wholly blown out of all proportion. At least in this instance, no blame could be apportioned to them and there was also a sense that Antrim were equally hard done by.
In a scenario that’s becoming all too familiar, the form close to home was a little battered in the run up to the re-fixture (I refuse to use the word ‘replay’). Feelings compounded by the game wasn’t shown on television. Blessings often come from where they are least expected. It must be admitted that the school of thought which decreed the ship had sailed had tried to invade the mindset. Regardless, a punt was again had, at 3/1 this time.
The old adage goes that goals win games. Antrim would surely disagree. For even though they raised one more green flag than Neil Heffernan’s brace and other ‘majors’ from Gavin McGowan and Stephen Clynch, the James Toher led team somehow fashioned victory from one of the greatest sporting occasions Meath – or anywhere – has ever seen.
A victory which serves as due reward for years of developmental work by so very many people. And it needn’t be an end. Rather, a beginning, of a journey to bigger and better things for Meath hurling. One is reminded of those fabled days of the spirited displays and victories over Offaly and Wexford and – I think – tackling a Kilkenny team in Nowlan Park that went on to win the All Ireland. Playing against a better calibre of opponent can surely only be a good thing going forward too.
Obviously, greatest pride is local. There’s no problem in admitting that a few tears were shed at Meath again having a good day in Croke Park. Especial happiness at seeing Dunboyne’s Sean Quigley and Michael O’Grady play their part. Thoughts were again, mind you, drawn to the late and sadly missed Brian Smyth. No doubt, the former Hurling Board secretary would have been delighted and proud in the meeting rooms above.
As he would surely have been with what turned out to be a very proud period for Dunboyne GAA. With eleven of the club’s representatives seeing action in GAA HQ over the course of the one weekend while the U-14 lady footballers represented Meath with gusto at Feile in the deep south. Such happenings greatly cushion the effects of some rather unpalatable happenings in recent times.