Strange Sundays – Part II

“Somewhere far away a lonely bell is ringing, and it echoes through the canyon like the disappearing dreams of yesterday. On a Sunday morning sidewalk…” Over the last decade or so, enduring and getting used to scenarios which at one stage would’ve been utterly unthinkable has become an unfortunate addendum to supporting and/or writing on the Meath football team. Leads coughed up, teams who would’ve been absolutely respected at all times but eventually bypassed are now putting dual carriageways through our ambitions. Deservedly so too, in most cases.

Consider, if you will, Championship exits to Fermanagh in 2003 and 2004, Cavan in 2005, Wexford (Leinster) in 2006, Limerick in 2007, Westmeath (2013) and Offaly most recently. Not forgetting Carlow either, which could and in all honesty should have been another entry on the above list. By the way, compilation of the above list is in no way intended as a dig at the teams listed herein. For one thing, we are in no position to take digs at anybody and for another that those teams mentioned up to this point were able to – in some cases – brush us aside gives the most graphic indicator yet as to how our status in the game has diminished from what it once was.

In the opening salvo of this mini series, published yesterday, it was ruefully conceded that both underdogs were always likely to give a considerably better account of themselves – and by extension the rest of Leinster – than would have been likely to come from Meath. Trust me, absolutely zero pleasure was taken from opining as such.

What it does, however, is bring me back to a question which featured here extensively recently. Why? What are other counties doing that we’re clearly not which allows them to make relative yet significant progress while we stagnate at best.

It can hardly be personnel given the calibre of people currently looking after county teams and the quality of player available to said individuals. In these situations, it’s often seen as the easy way out to blame financials.

Nobody has the clout available to Dublin in that department, so it becomes a matter of best pooling whatever resources are available to best extract greatest benefit from what’s on the table.

To me, that is best achieved by developing a style of play which best compliments the machinery with which the architects are working. When Mickey Harte is involved with a team, that of course means everything being predicated on a labyrinth-like defencive structure

Now, I am not about to be a hypocrite and claim to be the Tyrone man’s biggest fan, by any means. Dour negativity seems to be at the epicentre of Plan A all the time. And that’s without even mentioning football yet!

Be that as it may, mind you, one cannot argue with his glory-laden career in team management. It may not be pretty but by God its effective. Naturally, his achievements with his native county must be regarded with the utmost majesty.

Not only because he had cultivated and developed the group of players – including his own son Mark – through Minor and U-21 and picked up All Ireland titles in both before that group were also the backbone of the bunch that would take Sam Maguire to the O’Neill County on three occasions on his watch.

Furthermore, sight must never be lost of the tragedy which has followed Harte and Tyrone football like a black cloud throughout those most joyous of days. Beginning with Minor footballer Paul McGirr’s passing in 1997. Then that of Cormac McAnallen in 2004 and, of course, his daughter Michaela in 2011.

Mickey Harte has worked his magic with Louth

You suspect that football – and the people therein – are a big part of what has kept the Ballygawley native going through all the trauma. He’s far from alone in that regard. That he had taken Tyrone as far as could be would probably be fairly well accepted but it should’ve come as little surprise that he had more to offer in some capacity.

On that front, you cannot but admire the ambition and b***s of Peter Fitzpatrick and the Louth Co Board in selling Mickey a package which he was obviously enamoured enough with to commit to a long time stint at same. If only powerbrokers much closer to home had the vision and cajones to make such a move.

Consider this, Harte, Oisin McConville, Tony McEntee, Rory Gallagher and Davy Burke have all achieved relative progress with counties other than their own. Whilst at the same time, Meath, Kildare, Tipperary, Cork and Monaghan stagnate at best under the direction of one of their own. Go figure.

Credit where it’s due, however, the Wee County have made their progress playing a surprisingly fluid variety of football considering who is at the helm of the ship. Yes the phalanx of defenders is still a feature, but the speed and direct nature with which they attacked was surprisingly, refreshingly entertaining.

But then, it comes down to cutting the cloth according to measure. With gifted, adventurous forwards like Sam Mulroy, Conor Grimes, the mesmerising Ciaran Downey and the pacey Craig Lennon, why hinder their progress and productivity fluting around with the ball.

Ciaran Downey gave a display for the ages against Offaly

Downey in particular deserves special mention. There was a time back in the years that, thanks to LMFM, I would’ve been as up to speed with what was going on in Louth club football as was the case closer to home. On foot of same, some of the county’s top players of the time – like the late, great Stephen Melia, Seamus and Cathal O’Hanlon, Niall O’Donnell, Aaron Hoey, Ollie McDonnell, Stefan White and Colin Kelly were very familiar names.

For whatever reason, in more recent times that hasn’t been the case, but even from a cursory glance at match reports it could be deduced that Conor Grimes, Tommy Durnin, Sam Mulroy and Ryan Burns were among their leading lights.

That, of course, was prior to getting a painfully close up demonstration of just how good they were when they usurped Meath in the National League at the beginning of March. Anyone, like me, who hadn’t heard of Ciaran Downey before then knew all about him afterwards.

What was also clear, to this observer at least, was that Mickey Harte’s blueprint has evolved throughout his managerial career. Yes, the defencive system is still the foundation stone of everything, but there’s definitely more freedom and fluidity prescribed in attack.

As can been seen from the increase in kick passing compared to Harte incarnations of the past. Not to mention players kicking scores from further out the field. If others much closer to home could or would adopt a similar approach who knows what might be possible.

From Louth’s perspective they are surely in bonus territory regardless of what happens from here. With the guarantee of at least four more matches. Looking at the bigger picture dispassionately, I am conflicted as to whether Dublin have come back to the pack or are, in fact, taking a pull before stretching the field again.

By all known metrics, Dessie Farrell’s charges should have too much for those who have been the football story of the year so far, but, if there are even minute chinks in their armour, few, if any, would be more crafty about exploiting them than the man in the opposing dugout the next day.

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