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Thursday 8 December 2016

Burke craving a return to the era when Royals were 'never beaten'

Mickey Burke gets away from Louth’s Ryan Burns during the recent Leinster SFC quarter-final. Photo: Sportsfile
Mickey Burke gets away from Louth’s Ryan Burns during the recent Leinster SFC quarter-final. Photo: Sportsfile

Take away the multiple tattoos and shaggy hairdo, and there's something refreshingly old-school about Mickey Burke. No carefully cultivated clichés that tell you nothing. Not a flashy footballer but hardy, honest, unflinching.

Stereotypical Meath.

Or, maybe, what used to be typical Meath.

Burke has been part of a Royal collective that has suffered some horrendous Croke Park humiliations in recent years. His county was already a beaten docket when he was introduced for the second half of the 2014 Leinster final mismatch with Dublin.

He started against Westmeath last summer … he could always use the get-out-of-jail excuse that Meath were cruising prior to his 45th minute departure. Except he doesn't. One in, all in.

He accepts such defeats have caused some loss of connection between the Meath team and its people. Only the players can fix it, starting against Dublin this Sunday.

"We were always the team that was never beaten," muses the Longwood man. "I suppose Westmeath were always going to beat us at some stage in life. Okay, we didn't want it to happen, we were nine points ahead, local rivals and they wanted it so much. The first time it ever happened and (in) the media it blew up.

"Then everyone was kind of saying we're the team that can't finish out games. But we went up to Tyrone the next day and put in a big performance. But, yeah, we do need to perform in this Dublin game ... I'm confident we will."

He defines this Meath tradition as "never-say-die, just a hard team, physically hard men who were never beaten. Could mix the good football as well, could mix the ugly stuff with the beautiful stuff.

"I suppose, being honest, people question us about that. Do we have that? Look it, we lost a few lads, we lost older guys and it's quite a young team. I don't want to be making excuses - 2014 was a bad result against Dublin."

Yet Burke firmly believes this latest generation is made of the right stuff.

"The boys care," he assures. "The culture is good, the attitude is good. I can't guarantee that we're going to beat Dublin or win medals, but I'm happy once everyone is giving 100 per cent, what more can we do? We're giving it everything.

"As a county we're so used to success. From the mid-80s to 2001 or whatever, we didn't expect to lose and now … that was Seán (Boylan) and when you see the likes of Alex Ferguson leaving (Manchester United), everyone comes in and it's a bit unsettled. But we're getting there slowly again, I hope."

Watershed

Mention of Boylan calls to mind a watershed moment in Burke's own career, when he broke his tibia and fibula - and tore his medial knee ligament - during a 2010 Leinster SFC replay against Laois.

"It was tough, it was lonely, it was nine months," he recounts. "I remember lying in the bed (in Tullamore Hospital) with my gear on me still and Boylan, Seán, was the first man into me. My father or mother were down at the game - they didn't pop up for an hour or two after!

"Sean was in crying there beside me, and I was ... 'Oh, Jesus', it was shocking.

"And I just remember saying, 'I'm going to give this a lash, I'm going to do whatever I've got to do.' I'm all in or all out anyway in everything."

Burke was true to his word: he made it back on the Meath team for the following year's qualifier defeat to Kildare.

As much a hurler as footballer, the 30-year-old has parked his 'dual' county ambitions this year (bar one NHL game in Down) because he felt his form "suffered" in 2015.

He's candid about his job-spec: everyone would love to be a "nice stylish player; that's just not me, unfortunately."

He continues: "I've always been a bit odd, like. I used to love Enda McNulty, corner-back. People will say 'Why did you love Enda McNulty?' I used to love him because he always marked the best players for ten or 12 years.

"I don't know what the Meath fans think of me. I've often thought about that. I genuinely don't. I hope they do. Everyone has ego. Everyone wants to be liked."

Says the man with a map of Meath tattooed on his right elbow. A Royal forever.

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