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Monday 23 October 2017

Royal rout was Blues' salvation

THE clock reads 45 minutes and a Leinster semi-final that would go down in Royal legend and Sky Blue infamy remains balanced on a knife-edge.

Meath have recently grabbed the initiative through an exquisite second goal, courtesy of Cian Ward, and lead by three points. But then Eamon Fennell wins a Brendan Murphy kickout and the ball is worked to Paul Flynn, who bursts through a gap before unleashing a thunderbolt ....

Flynn's shot crashes off the inside of the near post, flashes across the goal and eventually goes wide. Dublin were that close to drawing level.

"History will tell you that Dublin/Meath games are always close. It was just that day, everything went right for them and things just didn't go right for us," recalls Fennell, looking back on that fateful June afternoon in 2010. "Small incidents like that can change the game."

Who knows what might have happened if Flynn's howitzer had struck the jackpot instead of wood. Would Meath have added three more goals to inflict 11-point humiliation on the old enemy? Is it conceivable that Dublin, for all their defensive disarray that day, might actually have won, feeding off the oxygen of an equalising goal?

And in that scenario? Well, a day of far greater notoriety - that Leinster title pilfered from Louth's grasp via Joe Sheridan's 'try' and Martin Sludden's bizarre officiating - would never have happened either. And, who knows, Dublin under Pat Gilroy might never have fully implemented the defensive surgery that would lead to a redemptive 'back door' run that summer and, ultimately, to All-Ireland deliverance.

Best to rein in this speculative rewriting of history and focus on what actually happened. The Dubs were humbled by 5-9 to 0-13.

That remains their solitary defeat in the Leinster championship arena over the past decade, dating all the way back to Westmeath in June, 2004. And this Sunday they are gunning to make it four-in-a-row and nine-out-of-ten Leinster titles. Standing in the way? Meath, who else!

HERE'S a shorthand synopsis of that 2010 semi-final: Stephen Bray gave an early inkling of Meath's gung-ho mood (and Dublin's rearguard vulnerability) by embarking on a tenth minute burst culminating in a clinical finish. By half-time, though, the sides were level (1-5 to 0-8) with no hint of the carnage to come.

Then came Ward's goal - and Flynn's what-if miss - before two more rapid-fire strikes from Bray again and Joe Sheridan ended the contest after 52 minutes. As the Hill recoiled in horror, Brian Farrell came off the bench to toe-poke a fifth Meath goal in front of the now-silent terrace.

"We got into that zone where things were going right for us. We took nearly every opportunity we got," recalls Seán Kelly, a Meath selector then (under Eamon O'Brien) and once more under Mick O'Dowd.

"To beat Dublin, a lot of those opportunities you have to take - because Dublin are a very good team. If we, say, missed all the opportunities we missed against Kildare (in their recent Leinster semi-final) the next day, it will be very difficult to win."

Fennell offers a similar recall from a Sky Blue perspective. "I think Meath had about six shots on goal and they converted five - and we had about seven or eight and just didn't convert them. So it was one of those days," he maintains. "Take nothing away from them - it was a great performance and they took all the goals well. It was tough to handle at the time."

Grim

How tough? "It was a very grim place," says Fennell of that Dublin dressing-room. "To lose to Meath the way we did was ... it was embarrassing. And I think everyone felt that sort of embarrassment, like what happened in 2009 (against Kerry) all over again.

"I suppose that monkey is on your back; to think are you good enough? Can we do this? Can we get to an All-Ireland final? Can we win an All-Ireland final? Are we good enough to be playing this? All those thoughts start creeping into your head.

"Pat was very good - the whole management team were excellent - at just getting rid of those thoughts and getting your focus on where it needs to be, in getting ready for Tipperary (Dublin's opening qualifier)," the St Vincent's midfielder expands. "Because you know yourself, the longer you leave it linger, the worse it can be."

WHAT happened four years ago, in the long run, may well have been more beneficial to the vanquished than the victors. True, Meath went on to claim their first Leinster title in nine seasons - albeit one diminished by the daylight robbery circumstances of its achievement - but Dublin went one round further in the championship, to the All-Ireland semi-finals, and in the process built the foundations for their Sam Maguire assault of 2011.

Seán Kelly reckons 2010 was probably a watershed defeat for the Dubs. "I know Pat Gilroy very well," says the Meath mentor. "I played in college with him and I remember talking to him afterwards, and I think he changed a lot of things after that day.

"And I think that day maybe gave him the opportunity to change things he mightn't have been able to change, had it not happened."

The now-retired Fennell concurs. "At the time you always want to win and you always want to beat Meath, especially. But we had a young enough team. Pat was after giving a lot of people a fair crack at the whip in 2010," he points out.

"The Spring Series hadn't started then and we were looking to get these lads just more and more games. Going through the back door and playing the games in Croker brought us closer together."

The big difference between that Royal rout of 2010 and the Kerry calamity of 2009 is that Dublin had an immediate opportunity to right the wrongs.

Gilroy stressed this very point in his post-match briefing. "Now the question is going to be asked of us and we'll see have we got the answers," the then-manager remarked. "I'd be fairly confident that this group doesn't feel like it did itself justice today. I think in two weeks' time we should get a very good reaction to it."

Fennell takes up the same theme. "We had time to work on it and really hone in on our defensive structure," he recounts.

"If that happens in an All-Ireland quarter-final, you're licking your wounds, thinking what could have been and how you're going to change next year.

"When it happened against Meath, we had time to assess the damage and prepare going forward ... in that regard we were definitely lucky that it happened then and it didn't happen like the way it happened with Brazil."

At least the Dubs only let in five ...

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