The word ‘terror’ actually appeared just below the masthead of the Irish Independent last Tuesday morning. Beside it was the face of Meath football manager, Eamonn O’Brien, looking like he had just witnessed a screaming banshee running across his front lawn with Cian Ward’s head tucked under her arm. In the course of the interview within the newspaper, O’Brien actually did not use the word terror but he did make it quite clear that he viewed Kerry as a football team which was twice as good as his own. If Kerry played anywhere near their potential in this afternoon’s All Ireland semi-final then Meath would be, first of all, embarrassed to death and, secondly, brutally defeated. Great.
With this form of high infants’ psychology unleashed, what are we really to make of the mental state of the Meath football team which enters Croke Park in a few hours’ time?
Personally speaking, I have found Meath’s whole approach to this game to be less than decent and manly. And, if there is one thing which all of us who have contributed as much as a thimbleful to the county’s rich and glorious football heritage guard with our lives, it is the Meath team’s complete manliness.
This quality, sometimes in its rawest form, and sometimes uncontrolled by the team’s guardians, has brought shame down upon all of us who have been privileged to wear the magnificent green and gold jersey. Our most basic characteristics have never allowed us to live up to the legend of being a Royal County but, through good times and awfully long periods of losing to every Tom, Dick and Harry we’ve ever played against, one thing has never changed and that, ladies and gentlemen, is the pride we have in our share of this island.
To quote one of my own heroes of the movie theatre and also historical times through Scotland’s amazing past, William Wallace, it is this: we in Meath know how to pick a fight when we have to do so. Win or lose, in the end, we’ve always been good at that.
Led by Eamonn O’Brien and his team management, some of who are great friends of mine, Meath are journeying to Croker today like a bunch of old women. That’s not exactly politically correct, I readily acknowledge. But, I’m not at all happy.
This is an All Ireland semi-final which the Meath team has every right to be in, and yet all week long I have had to listen to O’Brien and his players talk the talk and make the sort of noises of a second-rate football county.
Christ almighty, you’d swear that Meath were some sort of Division One or Division Two outfit from England, who had miraculously worked their way to an FA Cup semi-final against Manchester United or Chelsea. For the love of anyone who has watched Gaelic football over the last few seasons, this is a middle-of-the-road, perhaps slightly-above-average, Kerry team which Meath are playing in this All Ireland semi-final.
I expect Kerry to win by something between five and 10 points, but that does not excuse everyone associated with this Meath team for their performance of acting out the roles of sniveling, terrorised hobbits these last few days. Even the lads from Longford, Sligo and Antrim did not stoop to this sort of performance in the weeks before each of these teams faced off with Kerry in the All Ireland qualifiers.
Meath, as it has happened in the summer of 2009, have defeated teams equal if not slightly better than this sort of opposition and apart from Kerry’s complete annihilation of Dublin in their quarter-final, there is nothing much left in terms of actual performances to seriously differentiate between Meath and Kerry this year.
Don’t think for a second for that Meath team boss, Eamonn O’Brien, and his management team are not fully aware of this. They know they’ve got a chance of surprising everyone. They know, given the manner in which Kerry tails are up after their 25,492-point victory over Dublin, that Jack O’Connor’s rejuvenated footballers might remain in fourth gear for another 70 minutes, and that they may be mown down by half-time. They know that Declan O’Sullivan (left) and Colm Cooper (if he passes his finess test this morning) and Paul Galvin, in particular, could absolutely tear the Meath defence apart.
They know all this, and at the same time they know that if they say enough nice, polite, even fearful things about Kerry, that there is a chance that they might sneak or luck-out a victory.
Their thinking, at its very best, is the stuff of high infants; but I’ve already warned you of this, haven’t I?
As you also know by now, nothing gets up my nose as violently as grown men behaving like ageing women, and when a Meath team adopts this role then I have a fairly unsympathetic reaction. Half of me, honestly, hopes that Meath lose just as badly and painfully as they have, all week long, been promising they will surely lose.
Me? I’d love to have a Meath team these last seven days calling it as it is, and calling Kerry a tired, irritable, beatable football team. And, that is still the case. Just watch what happens after this semi-final? Kerry, more than likely, if they do win today, are going to get feck all respect from Conor Counihan and Cork before the All Ireland final, and are going to get resoundly beaten in the game itself.
That’s for another day.
Today, Meath have nothing at all to fear from Kerry, apart from the three aforementioned individuals in the Kerry forward division. I’ve no idea who can keep track of Galvin. Not a clue how Cooper can be corralled. Even less of a clue who is the Meath defender who can equal the pace and brilliant power off the mark which makes Declan O’Sullivan my favourite footballer on the Kerry team of the last decade or so.
Problem for Meath, really, is that the team possesses only one defender who safely fits the category of genius, and that is Anthony Moyles. He, however, at this stage of his magnificent career, does not have what it takes to match the brilliance and incredible acceleration of Declan O’Sullivan, or the wit and occasional wizardry of Colm Cooper.
The second best Meath defender is Caoimhín King. One on one with Paul Galvin, and with Galvin clearly in the mood to bury a couple of years’ disgrace and complete mediocrity, this is not a 50-50 contest either or anything approaching it.
After that, the Meath defence is made up of mediocre-to-decent footballers, and that is why Kerry are a safe bet to win this game by something between five and 10 points, and closer to 10 points rather than five points. Elsewhere on the field, in individual man-to-man contests, and even territory-by-territory contests, there is nothing separating the two teams in front of us this afternoon.
The best thing by far about this Meath team is the trio of Cian Ward, Brian Farrell and Joe Sheridan. Each, at any time, can be sublime but the problem here is that the Kerry defence – especially since Mike McCarthy answered the call, bravely and brilliantly – has single-handedly dug this Kerry team out of the gigantic hole in which it found itself. Unless Meath score two or three goals in some form of crazy avalanche, Meath have absolutely no chance of putting up a total score capable of gaining entry to the All Ireland final.
In the middle third of the field, Meath will do alright. Darragh ó Sé is a hand which had already been folded in county footballer terms, and Nigel Crawford and Brian Meade can fight and wrestle their way to a draw in this area. The Meath pairing has been exemplary these last four months and Crawford in particular has carried out the role of being the only calm, resourceful ‘veteran’ member of the team with absolute perfection.
Man on man, and territory by territory, this is an even enough game. However, in the overall approach, in the game plan, and in the pace which both teams bring with them into Croker this afternoon, everything falls into Kerry’s lap.
Moving the ball from defence to the middle third of the field, to the inner sanctum of the forward division, is a journey which this Meath team has made with no great certainty or ambition this summer. There is no inherent self-belief in this group of footballers. And, take away Moyles, Crawford and Ward, and Meath would have perished sometime in June or July.
I think Jack O’Connor now knows exactly that. On the sideline too, everything favours Kerry. O’Brien and his lieutenants, Bob O‘Malley and Donal Curtis, as stout-hearted and experienced as they may be in the general business of county football, are newcomers in their roles. O’Connor has the ability to buy and sell the three of them, and that is the harshest reality of this day of football.
So, is it wise for Eamonn O’Brien to play the role of a sniveling, scared wreck? Maybe so, though in my opinion this has shown an unnecessary degree of respect and subservience to a Kerry team which has only one decent performance under its belt all summer long. Kerry, today, in my mind, will take up Eamonn O’Brien’s invitation.
Please remember, Seán Boylan bended his knee to opposing teams all of his life, but everyone in the country knew that was just Seán’s courteous and generous nature, and nobody ever believed anything he had to say. When Boylan said he was fearful, or even in terror, ever other team took that as a declaration of open warfare.
When Eamonn O’Brien says he is very afraid, on behalf of himself and this Meath team, it looks and sounds like the team I love has simply raised a dirty white flag.