a blast from the past
Sunday's Royal rumble with Offaly may not thrill on paper -- but Faithful's ambushes in late '90s were another story MEATH and Offaly will get down and dirty in O'Moore Park this Sunday. The counties haven't clashed in SFC combat for 10 years and the rest of us have scarcely bemoaned the fact. Harsh but true.
The reason is obvious. Meath have been a pale shadow of their once-regal selves since last contesting an All-Ireland final in 2001. Offaly, meanwhile, have nearly disappeared off the provincial radar.
Yet those of us without Royal blood or Faithful forebears should pause before we pillory. There was a time when Meath-Offaly was a major event with national ramifications. We're talking about that brief epoch between 1997 and 2000 when the counties collided, four summers running, and everyone else sat up and took notice.
This period was bookended by two famous Offaly ambushes: Meath dreams of defending their All-Ireland crown were sunk (without trace of a back door escape) in both the 1997 Leinster final and a provincial quarter-final three years later.
In between, though, Seán Boylan's men reigned supreme, beating Offaly by 12 points in '98 and by seven a year later. The latter campaign culminated in Meath landing their seventh All-Ireland crown, and last to date.
Whatever happens on Sunday, no one expects either side to be hanging around next September. That may seem overly dismissive of a Meath squad who have taken the scenic route to two All-Ireland semi-finals in the past three seasons; less so when you consider their tame last-four exits to Cork and Kerry.
The bookies concur: Meath are 50/1 outsiders for Sam, Offaly a distant 300/1. Even in the provincial stakes, you will find Meath third in the pecking order (at 13/2) with Offaly way down at 66/1.
Where, you wonder, has it all gone so wrong?
Finbarr Cullen, victorious Offaly captain in '97, harks back to Offaly's last Leinster final appearance in 2006 -- a nine-point defeat to Dublin.
"We reached a Leinster final under Kevin Kilmurray and never progressed after that," he laments.
"We had changes of management too often, and Offaly players have to look at themselves as well.
"There was an issue with the commitment of some players, but that's not there at the moment. Tom Cribbin is happy with the group of players and they're working very hard," states Cullen.
Donal Curtis, who established himself as a regular Royal starter from '97, is well placed to measure Meath's current state of health -- he's a selector under Eamonn O'Brien.
He accepts criticism that Meath aren't the force of old as "very fair because we have won nothing".
But he adds: "I think we are definitely making progress. The two All-Ireland semi-final (campaigns) have been good. Maybe we haven't got much credit; it's up to us to prove we are better than that. To try and win Leinster would be a starting point."
Back in '97 conquering Leinster may have seemed just the start of an awfully big Offaly adventure.
"We came from nowhere," Cullen recalls. "We had a good league run that year. It was Tommy Lyons's first year and he put a huge emphasis on fitness.
"We definitely went beyond our expectations, but we also worked very, very hard," he adds.
"We played great football -- and then ran into Mayo in an All-Ireland semi-final and had no plan B.
"We had an excellent full-forward line, and the Mayo boys closed us down and we were not able to get it into them properly.
"The semi-final came very quickly because of all the replays (between Meath and Kildare) ... we needed some time to get our heads around it."
For Cullen, usurping the Royals in 2000 was "almost as sweet" as the Leinster final victory of August 16, 1997.
A mere 21,359 turned up in Croke Park that afternoon -- proof, he suggests, that Offaly fans didn't expect much and Meath supporters didn't rate the opposition.
"Maybe Meath started to believe how bad we were going, and we definitely caught them on the hop," the Edenderry man concludes.
Cullen spies hope in that precedent because, as in 2000, Offaly enter the Championship "on the back of an average league with nothing to lose".
He fears Meath's greater experience and physicality. Yet the pressure is all on them -- "an ideal situation for Offaly".
As befits a current Meath selector, Curtis pleads caution. "We always keep saying about Offaly, they are a very proud county and they won't fear us," he warns.
Harking back to his own playing days, he name checks the greats on that Meath team (Trevor Giles, John McDermott, Darren Fay, Graham Geraghty, etc) to underline how they always fancied they could beat anyone between '96 and '01.
So what went wrong against Offaly -- twice?
In '97, Curtis cites Offaly's hunger, their progress under Lyons, their inside forwards, and one other obvious factor: Meath's three-match semi-final trilogy yielding suspensions for Geraghty, Fay and Mark O'Reilly, even before Martin O'Connell fell prey to injury.
"The Kildare games proved very costly. We ended up with, I think, 18 fit players for the final," he points out.
As for 2000, he can cite another Geraghty suspension whereas Offaly can counter that they were similarly deprived of Ciarán McManus.
Curtis then pinpoints another "huge advantage: their manager that year was Pádraig Nolan, who had coached a lot of us in St Pat's (of Navan)".
"They really closed down Trevor that day -- that's the one thing that really stands out for me."
Only in the past week, Curtis tuned into the video of that 2000 match and was struck by "some of the tackles"; how both teams "went hammer and tongs" for the ball. If it happened today, he surmised, you could have 10 lads sent off.
You ask: that many? To which he replies: "I'm sure there would be yellow cards given out for the first tackle, and you wouldn't get the same commitment then after.
"I think it's amazing the way the game is going ... it has really, to quote Joe Brolly, been sanitised."