Relegation – Geographic, demographic or other?

In a piece heralding Davy Nelson’s appointment as Meath Ladies Senior manager, mention was made of the fact that, between his roles as player and manager, the former wing forward was involved in eight Meath SFC victories.

The majority of those were achieved – from a playing perspective – in the mid to late 1980s, culminating in a four in a row triumph in 1990. If you now factor in that Navan O’Mahony’s also garnered at least one county hurling title during that time and it gives you some indication of the strength of and depth in the Brews Hill club.

Something underlined by the fact that in 1997 many of their most decorated stars of that era added to their already considerable haul of Keegan Cup gongs.

Not that we in Dunboyne need any reminding of the strength of the blue and white hoops, particularly at underage level Between teams involving lads my own age and teams I was involved in the management of.

During that time, O’Mahony’s won every underage title from U-12 to Minor multiple times over. All under the guidance of Cathal O’Bric and, more often than not, at our expense.

Thus, even though those based in Paddy O’Brien Park were relegated in the early 2000s it was obvious that was a transitional period for the aristocrats and would surely be back at the top table of Meath football sooner rather than later.

Niall McKeigue – an amazing servant for The Hoops

Which they indeed were, though it wasn’t until 2008 they reigned supreme once again. This time under the guidance of Sean Kelly and Sean Barry before their last pair of titles, to date, were put together in 2014 and ’15.

Last night, what had been possibly inevitable for the recent past was confirmed as the county’s most decorated club – in terms of football at least – fell through the trap door and away from the table again.

To paraphrase Talking Heads slightly, you must ask yourself, how did we get here? Not just with O’Mahony’s relegated but with their Navan neighbours Simonstown Gaels – back to back champions in 2016 and 2017 in the dreaded dropzone play offs. Only escaping via a penalty shootout against plucky Ballinabrackey.

But here’s the thing, The Bracks were then able to extricate themselves from the quicksand against O’Mahonys before Seneschalstown sealed the fate of the latter last night.

Shane O’Rourke won two Keegan Cup medals with Simonstown Gaels

Surely there has to be a pondering as to how the two clubs in the county’s capital town ended up entangled at the wrong end of affairs. Before anybody says anything, in no way was this piece meant as a dig at anybody.

I am fortunate and very proud to have great and treasured friendships within both clubs. None more so than the two gentlemen pictured above. Furthermore, it stands to reason that the more competitive clubs there are in the county, the better for the county team.

Though there are conflicting arguments on that score too. When Summerhill won four county championships in succession in the 1970s and Walterstown fell one short of that number in the mid 1980s the county team were at a very low ebb.

Giving lie to that, mind you, is the fact that when O’Mahonys equalled Summerhill’s feat with four on the bounce between 1987 and 1990, it coincided with the most glorious period in Meath’s GAA history. Perhaps there is no equilibrium. Except, in current circumstances, you wonder is there a corelation between the dip in fortunes of the Navan clubs and the current status of the county senior team.

Consider that, if you take Wolfe Tones’ victory of 2021 out of the equation – on the premise that they are a few miles outside Navan – next year, it will be six years next year since one of the Navan clubs reigned supreme in the county and, with the top town’s representation now halved it’s hard to know when their might be another.

However, the bigger question must presumably be why the two clubs – and O’Mahonys in particular – have stagnated so much in recent years. The quick answer to that would be to highlight the dearth of underage success, but, that in itself led to another why – why has the latter factor become an issue?

Is it geographic, demographic or is there something else at play? To take the first point, by geographic, I mean the following. The population expansion which has engulfed places like Dunboyne, Dunshaughlin, Ratoath and Ashbourne has been well documented. And, as the proliferation of young talented footballers coming through in Dunshaughlin and the potency of Ratoath’s teams at adult level proves, it certainly has had an impact.

Point being that it seems highly unlikely that the population of Navan has got smaller. Older, maybe, thus the reference to demographics, but hardly smaller.

Some would probably point to the explosion of housing in the likes of Johnstown and wonder why it hasn’t had an uplifting impact on the town clubs. My own theory is the (a) it would be more in Walterstown’s catchment area than that of Navan O’Mahonys and (b) even the All Blacks themselves haven’t benefitted from the growth of the area as much as would have expected as it would appear local soccer clubs have reaped most of the benefit.

Which leads to what one Navan based source concurred was the most likely conclusion which could be arrived at – player drop out. Given the number of young footballers passing through the halls of St Patrick’s Classical School – not to mention other schools in the area – it’s hard to fathom those who were once winning machines under the guidance of people like Paddy O’Brien and Cathal O’Bric now often struggle to make an impact at underage level. Or certainly not to the extent that was the case with my own age group for example.

Having a long overdue catch up with David Beggy when our clubs recently met

Then there is another factor which far too few people seem to mention, emigration. When our lads recently took on O’Mahonys in one stage of the relegation play offs, the opportunity arose to have a very much overdue catch up with Jinksy Beggy.

During which the point was made to my old friend that only one member of the O’Mahonys line up – Jake Regan – was known to me.

From a point where each and every one of their players were as familiar as our own. Either personally or purely through football. “They’re all in America” said the current manager of the blue and white hoops.

For that reason, inclination would be that it might take the 20-time Keegan Cup winners a while to get back up to competing for it.

Having said that, at the time of typing, both Dunboyne and O’Mahonys await the replay of what was a cracking MFC Div. 2 Final between the two last week. Regardless of the grade, the fact that both clubs are contesting County Finals bodes well going forward. Who knows what the future holds.

Jake Regan

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