Saturday 14 December 2019

Conor McKeon: 'Victory hurt the winners more than the losers'

BACK IN TIME: Darren Fay in action for Meath against Kerry in the 2001 All-Ireland semi-final
BACK IN TIME: Darren Fay in action for Meath against Kerry in the 2001 All-Ireland semi-final

In a 2013 book about four iconic Meath full-backs, Darren Fay pinpointed the precise moment the glory era for football in the county died and identified its cause of death.

Four Kings, written by the journalist Philip Lanigan and published by Hero Books, tells the stories of Paddy 'Hands' O'Brien, Jack Quinn, Mick Lyons and Darren Fay, the men who wore the Meath number three jersey and their influence on the Royal county's seven All-Ireland successes.

Fay, the modern day incumbent, recalls the final passage of Meath's remarkable 2-14 to 0-5 2001 All-Ireland semi-final victory over Páidí Ó Sé's Kerry, then All-Ireland champions.

With Meath coasting to a final against Galway, their fans resorted to cheering every pass.

'Olé!', they jeered, like approving spectators at a bullfight.


"You could hear it on the pitch," Fay admitted, "sure the whole stadium nearly was doing it. It took the goodness out of it.

"For that 10 minutes, for the first time I've ever experienced, an arrogance became part of Meath football.

"An arrogance to the players from the supporters.

"It was never like that before. Meath always treated teams with respect. And the players bought into it.

"John Cullinane scored a goal and it was a nothing goal. He was hit a little bit late and he just turned around and went like that into one of the Kerry player's faces", said Fay, opening his arms out wide to illustrate as if to greet the crowd's acclaim.

"That summed up exactly what happened after the whole thing started.

"When the supporters did that in the last 10 minutes and the players bought into it, that's when Meath football started showing an arrogance and it's never recovered from it."

Eighteen years on and there isn't a trace of the arrogance Fay felt had contaminated Meath football in that moment.

Humility has been learned the hard way.

Their subsequent nine-point defeat in the All-Ireland final to Galway was Meath's last appearance in football's show-piece and they've won just one - bitterly disputed - Leinster title since then.

Yet this season has been a hugely successful one, illustrated by the simple fact that Kerry are coming to Navan tomorrow evening, albeit for a match that Meath don't have anything tangible riding on.

They will begin 2020 in Division 1 of the League for the first time since 2004 and just as he has in this Super 8s group, Andy McEntee can test and hone his players against the very best on a weekly basis when the sun rises on their new season.

In the same chapter of Four Kings, Fay recalls leaving Croke Park that evening after the Olés and John McDermott predicting that the win would "hurt Meath more than it will Kerry."

"Meath haven't got within an ass's roar of winning an All-Ireland," he pointed out, "and Kerry have won, what, four?'

The climb gets steeper now for Meath but they've already come a considerable distance.

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