Making a stand: Pat Gilroy's Dublin continue to be far and away ahead of the rest in Leinster, as last week's performance showed

In the Meath dressing-room, this is how it once worked at the start of the championship. Simple, not pretty, but true. A new Dublin manager, or any new Dublin players being entertained and celebrated in the newspapers, were talked about and targeted. It was then agreed that their time on the sideline, or their time on the field in that new blue shirt, needed to be terminated as fast as humanly possible.

'Kill 'em at birth' was the unofficial team motto. At all costs, stop Dublin from ever finding themselves another Heffo, and stop Dublin from ever discovering another Brian Mullins or two.

The surest way of getting a result on both of these fronts was to defeat Dublin. But, along the way, in determined pursuit of such a result, it was also considered very necessary to cause as much physical, and mental, damage to any hot, new, boy in blue the Meath team happened to come across.

That's how it was.

At its barest, and most brutal, that is how Meath teams prepared for Dublin, and it's how Meath teams thought about Dublin and talked about Dublin. Last Sunday, for instance, Pat Gilroy and Mickey Whelan, and also Denis Bastick, Alan Hubbard, Ger Brennan, Paddy Andrews and Mark Davoren, would have been identified as special cases. More than that, the sight of any one of them in a newspaper in the days before the game would have induced a reaction falling just short of a physical sickness. Especially the sight of Pat Gilroy, and especially happy, hoppity Ger Brennan. The two of them would have had an X put on their faces with big, black markers. It would not have been anything personal. Just a matter of good business.

Gilroy is so full of the joys of spring, even now, six months after getting the job of Dublin team boss. Still Mr Positive, all 8 feet and 9 inches of him, and dressed in the most vivid, blinding shade of blue I ever saw a Dublin team manager wear.

And Brennan? Mr 'I'll Make It Happen'. Mr 'Watch Me Go'. Mr 'I'm Tougher Than You and Prettier on the Ball than You'.

I'll have to be excused at this point, if I appear to be falling back into a mindset which I was quite happy to possess all of 20 years ago, when I sat in a Meath dressing-room, and listened, and talked and plotted with everyone else.

These days, I'm 47-years-old, and I like and admire Pat Gilroy and Mickey Whelan, and I personally think Ger Brennan is one of the most skilful, entertaining and passionate of footballers we have in this country. I've also lived in Dublin for 20 years. I like the Dublin football team, and I'd really like them to win the All Ireland this year.

However. What happened last Sunday was awful. It was insulting to everyone from Meath who happened to be in the stadium, and it was unbelievably galling to watch for any of the old, fattened, limping Meath soldiers.

The fight has exited the Meath dressing-room. All we saw emerge from the dressing-room last Sunday was a large white flag. On the field, the nature of the team performance over the 70 minutes was cruelly overshadowed by the passive, slightly terrified displays by some individuals in green in the middle third of the field.

In the middle of it all, Ger Brennan threw a half-punch at a Meath footballer, and half-connected, and the Meath footballer did nothing. The Meath team did nothing. Ger Brennan might as well have walked straight into the Meath dressing-room, sprayed a 'F**k Meath' message on the largest wall, and walked out again – without anyone asking a single question of him.

This column is not doing an abrupt about-turn, after claiming at the tail end of last month that the modern game of Gaelic football is now a place where cheats, cynics and the most brazen of cowards can feel at home more than ever before. And neither am I claiming that Gaelic football 20 years ago, and 30 years ago and 40 years ago, was a complete work of art, or abided whole-heartedly by the rules. All we were asking for, last Sunday, was a decent, manly, physical contest. If that was all we got, we might have been happy.

But, if Meath and Dublin cannot set the standards for physicality and mental intensity, then what is to become of the remainder of the football championship? All we might have to look forward to, at this stage, is a half-decent Leinster final between Dublin and God knows who without any real physicality.

Today, Westmeath and Wicklow, and Laois and Louth, take the stage in the province, and it's virtually impossible to see how any of the four can seriously muster up performances which would in any way hurl even one of them into the role of a live contender for the Leinster title. If all four teams came together in a mini 'Lions-type' package it's still difficult to see how they would shape up to, and seriously compete with, last Sunday's off-colour Dublin team.

Westmeath and Laois should win, though it's no sure thing. Both counties have squandered some of their best years over the course of this decade, and therefore both have to share medium-sized portions of the blame, with Dublin and Meath, for the slow and painful demise of the Leinster football championship.

As Leinster champions during this decade, neither team developed a hard, ruthless edge, to complement the natural talent which was there. That was the fault of the team management in the first instance, Páidí Ó Sé and Mick O'Dwyer, and it was also the fault of the half dozen team leaders which both Westmeath and Laois once possessed. Not so Laois. That Laois team had almost everything. An able, smart, attacking defence, a formidable centrefield pairing, and also good scoring power spread across a number of talented forwards. In the natural order of things, Laois should have dominated Leinster in the middle of this decade, and claimed three or four provincial titles in a five or six years period. It could and should have been a mini-era for Laois football.

Laois failed themselves, and also failed the province. Laois had four or five of the best players in the country in the middle of this decade. Padraig Clancy was one of them. However, over the last few summers, Clancy has seldom played to his true potential, and observing the team through his performances only, it is clear to see that the Laois team has lacked real ambition and the most basic, nourishing form of self-belief.

We must return to Micko! For all his greatness, Mick O'Dwyer has proven himself to be no Alex Ferguson in the twilight of his managerial career. In Kildare, Laois, and Wicklow, O'Dwyer brought excitement, and great hope, but beyond building pretty decent football teams with the footballers and talents at his disposal, he didn't do anything more. There was no magic to Micko.

Mick O'Dwyer, perhaps, for all the credit which presents itself to him so freely, must also be seen as a factor in Leinster's decline. On three occasions, not nearly enough followed his initial, thrilling promise. Kildare petered out of the picture as a real force. Laois went flat too fast. With Wicklow his three years have speeded by and with them any prospect of real, sustained change in the county after Micko leaves.Wicklow could surprise Westmeath this afternoon, especially if they can hold together a solid defence. Even though they operated in different halves of the league, there is very little else separating the two teams, other than the stubbornness of each defence. Westmeath, most days, are always hard enough to break down. Wicklow's defence can be dismantled in minutes.

Four summers have also zipped by for Eamonn McEneaney in Louth, but during this time it has been a little bit of a roller-coaster ride for their ambitious team boss. All the promise and decent performances which Louth produced in year one disappeared and were replaced by disillusionment, argument and injury in years two and three – and still, Louth and McEneaney are together, which is an achievement in itself.

If everything comes right, and if Louth get the stranglehold they need in the middle third of the field, then they have a chance of beating a half re-built and distinctly rocky looking Laois team.

It would, I suppose, be something of a sense of destiny for Laois to end at a new low, at the end of a low and laborious decade in Leinster football.