On a dark September evening what’s close to thirty years ago now, yours truly was bemused to hear raucous applause and cheering erupt in the centre of Dunboyne as the arrival of the Meath team who’d gone under to Cork in the previous day’s All Ireland SFC final was awaited.
Meath’s misfortune that day enabled the completion of a historic double for the Rebel County. Admittedly, initially, the highlight of the evening was getting to shake Colm O’Rourke’s hand for the first time, as well as the O’Connor family from Warrenstown, Dunboyne, giving me their match programme with the autographs of every one of our players thereon.
Some months later, something even more special occurred. Brendan Reilly – who was right half back that day – mentioned that he’d an “auld jersey” at home in a box which he wanted me to have. Well, suffice to say, it wasn’t any “auld jersey” – it was the garment he wore during the game in question.
To my utmost regret, I wore the jersey to games for a few years after. Out of respect, it was retired from service. Someday soon it will, finally, be enveloped in the frame it deserves. Anyway, being honest, it wasn’t until 19 years after the event that I realised what the cheering was on the night of senior disappointment.
Fast forward nine years and on another autumnal Monday, during one of his many unforgettable speeches, on the occasion of Meath defeating Cork in the season’s showpiece, Sean Boylan remarked: “On this night nine years ago, two young men carried a cup through the streets of Dunboyne – young men who carried the torch for another generation of Meath footballers”.
The young men in question were the captain of the team that won the 1990 All Ireland MFC against Kerry, Enda McManus, and Graham Geraghty. Having viewed videos of their games years later, Dunboyne’s other representative on that team, Tony Byrne, to me, jumped out as the outstanding performer at the time.
Mind you, that was a star-studded group. Also therein were the likes of Conor Martin, Tom Hanley, John McCarthy, Jason Hendrick, David ‘Scobie’ Martin from Athboy – who also represented the county with distinction in hurling, Ronan McGrath from the Simonstown Gaels club, and Dunshaughlin’s Brendan Kealy. The entire panel could’ve been namechecked here, such was the talent thereon.
Of course, time has proven the early 1990s to be a golden era for Meath underage football. Another U-18 title followed in 1992 (with Dunboyne’s Denis Gallagher and the Dunshaughlin duo of Aidan Kealy and Brian O’Rourke aboard) while big numbers of both panels combined to engineered the county’s thus far sole outright U-21 success in 1993. Then, more significantly again, that wealth of underage talent was key to Sam Maguire spending two winters by the River Boyne in 1996 and 1999.
Recent events brought about sombre reflection on those great days. Owing to the passing of Patsy Duff. An iconic figure within Syddan GFC. Patsy played his part in those two Tom Markham Cup successes and also helped engineer more than a handful of provincial underage titles. More than that, he gave decades of dedicated commitment to the development of generations of Meath footballers.
In more recent times, life’s road ensured that Patsy’s son, Joe, and I would cross paths. It was always a great pleasure to spend time with them both and to be in Patsy’s company was an insightful education on all things football. Indeed, it was shortly after we met that it was realised that there was a bit of a connection there already as Patsy’s son-in-law happened to be Kieran Carolan who won Intermediate and Senior championship medals with Dunboyne and Patsy’s grandchildren Niall, Amy and Luke have also been involved with the club.
His death, coming not long after that of Brian Reilly, marks the passing of another Meath football talent scout to the dugout in the sky. Thus, there was something poignantly fitting to the Meath U-21 footballers winning their pre-season tournament – the Hastings Cup – around the time he passed away.
That could be the most timely boost future prospects have attained in a long time. The need for young talent to come through is timeless. Without wanting to engage in reactions of the knee-jerk variety, with the magnitude of certain tasks having being underlined of late, anything which offers additional modicums of hope going forward are crucial.
Nothing is certain, in life or sport. This corner openly admits doubting – in another sporting arena – whether Roger Federer would recapture the glory days. That question was wholesomely answered at the bottom of the world recently. What the success of the Swiss did, though, was highlight the question as to who the next stars of tennis will be once the golden circle of Federer, Rafa Nadal, Novak Djokovic and Andy Murray exit stage.
Similar pondering is pertinent in a local GAA context. As if they weren’t already, the starkness of the challenges ahead have already been illustrated. Hope, maybe necessity, would be that talent will emerge on the county and club scene in the weeks and months ahead.