With three Meath teams in Championship action, spread-eagled across the country within a few hours of each other, the decision was taken to wait until all the business was done before keyboarding this piece. It ended up being a day of ups and downs for all concerned but at the end of it all the overwhelming feeling was one of plenty to be hopeful about looking ahead.
Purely because of the order things happened chronologically, our sojourn through Saturday’s action begins in Pairc Esler, Newry, where the unique, commendable odyssey navigated by the Meath Minor footballers of 2020 came to disappointing but honourable conclusion at the hands of an exceptional looking Derry team.
Whatever about Forrest Gump’s assertion about life being like a box of chocolates, the maxim could certainly be applied to the U-17 grade, as it now is, across all GAA codes, especially given the even greater volume of player turnover instigated by the age. Thus, to hear whispers about an impending Minor star before the majority of people had seen them says a lot. In the case of this corner at least, so it was with Derry’s Matthew Downey.
Being a prodigiously talented underage player brings it’s pressure. You need look no further than Tommy O’Connor or Joe Sheridan in Meath, Brian ‘Beano’ McDonald of Laois, Armagh’s Eugene McVerry, Michael Meehan of Galway or Kyle Coney and plenty of others in Tyrone. Fabled talents as youngsters who, for a variety of reasons, never quite scaled the heights once thought possible. Now factor in being the son of your county’s only All Ireland winning captain and it becomes quite the load for young shoulders to carry.
Evidence to date, however, suggests that the Lavey youngster takes it all in his stride and leaves opponents in his wake. The equally impressive Dan Higgins got the goal which ultimately put a valiant Meath effort to the sword, but, like his dad before him, young Downey was the conductor-in-chief. I’m of an age that I can remember Henry and Seamus Downey at their peak.
The former was arguably the finest centre back of his era – though he’d have stern competition for the accolade from Keith Barr and ‘Rambo’ Gavigan. Even Sean Boylan’s best Meath team could seldom get the better of those trained by the late Eamonn Coleman. As good as Downey undoubtedly was at six, mind you, I often wondered how he’d fare out wearing 11 rather than 6.
It has also been my belief that there are two distinct ways of playing the ’40’ role. Either to stand on or around the line and ‘trade it’ like Colm O’Rourke did in a great duel with Barr during the 1991 saga or, my own preferred method of utilising it best, giving the occupant of the berth a ‘floating’ role, in other words, linking defence and attack with license to take a score if the opportunity arose. Downey Snr definitely could’ve stirred things there too, but the offspring already has it down to a fine art.
Now to turn the analysis in a different direction, as pivotal as a special talent like young Downey can be to a team, to be shorn of a player of similar ilk can be detrimental to a group’s prospects. As Meath unfortunately discovered when the very promising Conor Gray was forced off through injury early on. To their credit however, the youngsters from the Royal County battled manfully, establishing 0-04 to 0-02 lead after a cagey first half with Gray’s midfield partner Sean Emmanuel putting in a trojan shift.
When team captain Eoghan Frayne netted a penalty shortly after the restart it appeared John McCarthy’s charges may be able to keep their great run going, but, try as they so gallantly did, they were unable to repel the excellence of Higgins and Downey, albeit the seven point chasm (1-07 to 1-14) was decidedly harsh on the Leinster champions.
Though defeat was ultimately their lot, it would be impossible to overstate the good that these talented young men and their astute mentors have done. For me personally through some of the most difficult months of my life, but, in a much more important sense they have not only continued the resurgence of Meath football at Minor level in recent seasons but provided a serious boost to those guiding the county’s U-20 campaign which begins later in the week.
Act II of the triology for Meath teams on Saturday was the long awaited return of the Meath ladies team to the All Ireland SFC. And what a baptism of fire they were alotted, taking on a Cork team who, along with Dublin, have had the Brendan Martin Cup as their own for the better part of two decades.
In contrast, Eamonn Murray and his group have in recent seasons undertaken a major rebuilding process. Made possible by the efforts of Fergal Lynch and many more people with underage teams. Meath have been here before, from the breakthrough team of Ann-Marie Dennehy and Dearbhla O’Carrol and Christine (O’Brien) Fagan and Dorothy McGoldrick. To those who came after them, ladies such as Mena and Mary Shrridan, Grainne Nulty, Ger Doherty and Elaine Duffy.
After players of such calibre took their leave of the big stage, it was only natural that there would be a rebuilding process. Though I doubt anybody thought the transition would be so drastic or take so long.
Anything that’s really desired generally doesn’t come easy but is well worth the wait when the Promised Land is arrived at. For the Meath ladies, that has meant ascending from Div. 3 of the National League and suffering two All Ireland Intermediate Finals against Tyrone and Tipperary.
However, having clinically dispatched Westmeath in their third attempt to attain the Mary Quinn Cup, Murray’s charges confirmed their rising status in the game when comfortably claiming NFL honours at Kerry’s expense.
Even allowing for all of the above though, taking on Ephie Fitzgerald’s battle-hardened brigade represented different gravy altogether. Yet, while defeat was ultimately their lot in their first outing back in the bigtime, the acumen with which the Kepak-clad outfit competed more than validated their belonging on the top plateau.
Stacey Grimes (pictured above) was in lmperious form, hitting eight points in total but the old dictum about goals winning games rang true once again as the vastly experienced Orla Finn steered the Rebelettes home. Meath gave them plenty of headaches, mind you, and on that evidence they will do the same to others before the summer’s out.
Then again, perhaps the biggest story of the day was kept for kept for last. Earlier in the same week, the U-20 hurlers of Kildare constructed one of the sports stories of the year when sensationally sending Wexford packing from the Leinster Championship. Such happenings don’t transpire without a back story but they most certainly can be a forerunner to even bigger things.
Kildare and Meath have been well used to encountering each other in the likes of the of Kehoe Cup and lower divisions of the NHL but it is a mark of the progress made by both counties in the small ball code that they will shortly face off for the right to remain in the Joe McDonagh Cup – the Tier 2 hurling competition.
My fellow statistics fanatic, and Kildare’s chief chronicler and historian, Richard Commins opined that, in running Westmeath to a point, the all whites had proven themselves well worthy of being in the competition which honours the late, great former GAA President.
Inference being that the Lake County would be at the very least worthy of consideration for a place at the top table. By that yardstick, though, Meath can also approach the latest joust against their neighbours and rivals with an air of quiet confidence. Reason being that in recording their first ever victory in the McDonagh Cup, Nick Weir’s team overcame a Kerry group that would by many be considered to be on a par with the likes of Westmeath, so, to rmploy a bit of racing parlance, on a line of form, it should be another close one.
Weir’s warriors are entitled to be on a bit of a high though having recorded their first ever victory at this level. Now, in recent times, Rathmolyon’s Jack Fagan has been rightly lauded for his efforts with his adopted Waterford but thankfully the other Jack, Regan, is very much the ace in the hold for the green and gold.
The Kiltale player is as good a scoring forward as there is at level of the game, a fact again underscored by his 11 point haul on Sunday evening. It seems almost cruel to recount that the corner forward did have a first half penalty saved as, driven on by the accuracy of Shane Conway in particular, the visitors led by 1-13 to 0-13 at the long break.
Regan, Paddy Conneally, the returned Sean Quigley, and Padraig O’Hanrahan really upped the ante in the second half to help secure a famous victory, round off a memorable day and whet the appetite for another local derby.