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Saturday 3 December 2016

Here is how it feels to never beat the royal ...

All West' want is to do Meath just once

ONE question that yields the most evocative of answers: just what would it mean to finally slay the Meath dragon in championship combat?

"I would genuinely die happy," says Gerry Buckley, Westmeath journalist, GAA historian and maroon fanatic. "Aside from the obvious good health for myself and those near and dear to me, it has been my biggest ambition in life - to beat Meath."

"YOU'LL ... NEVER ... BEAT ... THE ROYAL". That staccato anthem used to be a Croke Park staple, vocal expression of the never-say-die spirit that epitomised Seán Boylan's heroes of the 1980s and '90s.

Even by the turn of the millennium, Meath were still renowned for Houdini-esque recoveries but no county - not even Dublin - suffered the haunting side-effects quite like Westmeath.

Here was an historic hoodoo given a vengeful modern twist. The current SFC record reads two draws and 20 Meath victories; but it was the painful trilogy of 2001 and then the Leinster deadlock of 2003 that cut deepest into the Westmeath psyche.

GHOST

Here's the shorthand summary, starting with 2001. Westmeath should have won their quarter-final meeting in Leinster, having led by six points, only to lose by one. They then blazed a trail through the new 'back door' to reach the All-Ireland quarter-finals, where they definitely should have buried the Royal ghost: they raced into a nine-point lead in the first 20 minutes, were still seven up at the break - only to be caught on the line by Ollie Murphy's equalising goal.

Come the replay, Meath survived the 17th minute sending-off of Hank Traynor to win by 2-10 to 0-11. Cue a multitude of maroon regrets that still resonate.

"We still think of that year," admits Paul Conway, a goalscorer in the drawn game, arguing that this was "a better all-round team" than the Leinster-winning history-makers of 2004.

"We were definitely good enough to have won Leinster … and if we'd beaten Meath in the All-Ireland quarter-final, we would have beaten Kerry (in the semi-final). Yeah, we were thinking - 'Jesus, what could it have been?' Anyone we speak to in Westmeath still talks about 2001: the team definitely could have got to an All-Ireland final. But definitely-maybe don't win games, you have to play 'til the final whistle."

That's where Meath have traditionally excelled, but it begs the question: could Murphy's goal have been prevented?

According to Gerry Buckley, "there should have been a queue for what wasn't in existence back then, a black card" to upend Graham Geraghty in the build-up.

"They would have been a bit more clever," Conway agrees. "Maybe we were a bit raw ... from what I recall, we just kept trying to play."

NOTORIETY

If 2001 constituted the bigger regret, their '03 Leinster clash is framed in greater notoriety - all because of Dessie Dolan's squandered last-gasp free to claim that tantalising maiden victory.

"People talk about Dessie that day and they'll just mention the point he missed, but no one will recall the 1-7," says Conway. "Dessie dragged us through that game. We were in the dressing-room at half-time (when Meath led by five) and it was like a morgue.

"Look it, Dessie was unbelievable that day," he adds. "If you gave Dessie 100 footballs this morning, he'd kick 100 over the bar. And it's extremely unfair … if Dessie hadn't scored the 1-7, we could have been 'bet' by ten points."

As it was, they were beaten in the replay. Plus ca change? Or will it all changed, changed utterly, in this Sunday's Leinster semi-final?

leinster sfc semi-final: westmeath v meath

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