Tommy Mahon, Benny Gartland, Patsy Duff, Brian Reilly, Oliver Harding, that was for you. Men who laid the foundations a generation ago upon which days like today were founded. It also represents due reward for those who kept the faith – maybe more than I did myself at times – to procure young talent, nurture and develop it to make days like today possible.
If you will indulge me for a moment, I also think of my late father, Sean at this time. He’d seen every All Ireland Meath had won at every grade. This is the first one without him. Though he was there there today I’m sure. For years, he had been pontificating his belief that Cathal O’Bric deserved a run with a county team. Turns out he was gloriously right.
In a world plagued with uncertainty and awash with fear that makes things like sport fade into insignificance, the good vibe which has enveloped Meath GAA in recent times has been a major fillip to so many. And I am not just pinpointing my personal situation this year here. Moreover, there has been a feel good factor about this particular bunch well before the commencement of their campaign.
Perhaps understandable given that success had begun to flow through the veins of football in the county again. Personally, whilst acknowledging the challenge it is to generate continuity at Minor level now with it being at U-17, and though there were less than a handful of the 2020 bunch still eligible, the aspect imbuing most confidence here was the man in the Bainisteoir top for the Royal County.
Cathal O’Bric’s managerial CV would be on a par with Pep Guardiola in another code. Everywhere he has been involved, success has flowed. With school teams, with his native club, Navan O’Mahony’s and his adopted one, Wolfe Tones. Indeed, it was when he threw his considerable talents in with the Kilberry crew that he attained his coaching accreditations. Not that we in Dunboyne needed any further reminder of his exemplary record on the sideline.
Our lads came out on the wrong side of jousts with a truly exceptional group of players more than most. Under Cathal’s guidance, they won every county title from U-12 to Minor on multiple occasions. Not only that, but they did so playing a brand of football that most adult teams would be envious of and do well to emulate.
So it was no surprise to me to observe the fluid, creative, fast-paced football, predicated on miserly defending on ferocious tackling, which have been the hallmark of this ultimately glorious campaign. Where jersey numbers aren’t worth the fabric on which they are printed. In the sense that, Meath’s goalkeeper Oisin McDermott was as comfortable and effective in possession as were the lads in the full forward line.
That poise, comfort and assuredness was required to the very last inch as Meath claimed the Tom Markham Cup for a fourth time and a first since 1992. Their Ulster opponents, overwhelming favourites before the off, looked quite capable of justifying their billing when opening up a lead 1-03 to 0-02 early on. The goal coming from main marksman Cormac Devlin.
However, just as with their lady footballers a couple of weeks back, those in green and gold didn’t do panic and after a move up the field straight from their manager’s playbook, full forward Oisin O’Murchu netted classily at the Davin End to put them right back in the picture. Tyrone were obviously a little rattled by the green surge, and when a good looking scoring opportunity dropped into McDermott’s grateful arms, the turnover was fully seized upon when bustling centre forward Sean Emmanuel drove a fine equaliser.
Thereafter, wing forward Shaun Leonard curled over a magnificent score which was a fitting end to an entertaining first half, as he and his colleagues took a slender but merited 1-07 to 1-06 advantage to the change of ends. The sides traded scores in a tightly contested third quarter before what looked like a decisive salvo – thanks to McDermott’s second converted ’45’ and fine individual strikes from Jack Kinlough and Hughie Corcoran.
In view of the fact that in total the sides were level eight times, as unlikely as it was, we shouldn’t have been overly shocked that Gerard Donnelly’s side mustered the three scores they needed – through Conor Owens and Ryan Cassidy – which had us presuming extra time was an inevitability with the scores tied at 1-11 apiece. Yet the ‘fun’ was only beginning.
Meath’s Christian Finlay dropped out the field and majestically won the restart after the Red Hand leveller. Whereupon he offloaded to corner back Conor Ennis and the Ballinabrackey clubman went on such a hare-like gallop upfield that you almost knew what was coming but dared not dream it. My only surprise was that the No. 2 offloaded to wing forward Leonard rather than drill it over himself though the gifted and versatile St Colmcille’s player dissected the posts with a carbon copy of his first half score.
Surely that was it? Nope. Even though the clock was half way to the 65th minute even though it wasn’t in the script when O’Bric’s boys hit the front, referee Derek O’Mahony, rather generously in my view, afforded the white and red another chance to extend the drama. Substitute Conor Owens, though, who’d done so much to get his colleagues to the biggest day, shanked his effort and Meath held on for a victory they deserved. Not only today, but after the brilliance they displayed throughout their campaign.
It may be impossible to estimate how much this will mean to Meath football going forward. At the very start of this piece, mention was afforded to those no longer with us who’d given so much to the underage cause. We must also pay homage to those who soldiered with them and were thankfully on scene today and can take tremendous satisfaction from it.
Looking at the bigger picture, it endorses inclination that football in the county is climbing back towards the status it should have in context of the game as a whole. To confirm such feelings, mind you, netting a major haul was of the utmost importance. A rising tide carries all vessels. We haven’t gone away, ya know!