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Just what the Doctor ordered

NO era defines the Dublin/ Meath rivalry as the '90s did. No-one, but no-one will forget '91, and already this week, the outbreak of nostalgia has reached epidemic levels.

Few Dubs will forget the 10-point triumph in '95 that pre-empted their last-but-one All-Ireland win, although fewer will likely want to recall Paul Bealin's penalty miss in '96, when Mickey Whelan's outfit not only surrendered their Delaney Cup to Seán Boylan's men, but let a young, dynamic Meath team out of the bag and watched horrified as they went on to lift Sam Maguire.

"It's adjacent tribal warfare," says Dr O'Neill in perhaps the most articulate and wide-reaching description of the once-great rivalry and one which punctuated some of the major moments in his stint as manager of the Dubs.

"There is an awful lot of history between Dublin and Meath. It goes back for yonks."

O'Neill, finally, has shed the 'last man to manage Dublin to the All-Ireland', moniker, an albatross he wore around his neck for 16 long years until last September, when Pat Gilroy -- a man who, as he told the Herald in the prelude to Sunday's clash, he himself had identified as an appropriate, if surprise candidate to manage Dublin back in late 2008 -- finally took the tag from him.

"It has been somewhat diminished in the last couple of years because Meath have been somewhat not performing to their optimum," he added.

"But two years ago, they upset Dublin here and Dublin will be well aware of that.

"Dublin went on after that a little bit further whereas Meath capitulated. I think Dublin will look optimistically to a Dublin victory but this will be a special match in itself, as it always has been."


WERE it not for Charlie Redmond's off/on-again/ off-again tango with Paddy Russell and Seán McLaughlin late disallowed point, the 1995 All-Ireland final would likely have gone down in history as one of the most forgettable of that era.

Yes, it was the summer of 'Jayo-mania', but the Dubs peaked back in July of that year when they put a 10-point win on Meath, a victory which went some was to exorcise the ghosts of '91 and which O'Neill accepts was the best performance of his time as Dublin manager.

"I recall the day before it on the Saturday, when we were having a get-together and a brief training session out in Trinity College grounds in Santry, saying that we didn't want a one-point win and being considered lucky," he recalls. "We really needed to drive it home.

"In fairness to the lads, we did. And they performed very well that day. Having said that, that match wasn't won until the last 15 minutes because there was nothing in it until Paul Clarke got the goal and the Dublin confidence factor went up and we won by 10 points in the end."

Meath under Boylan -- the master of reinvention -- would, of course, rise again. And an awful lot quicker than O'Neill expected after what was in every way an era-ending defeat.

"I remember after that match being outside in the car park here in Croke Park and talking to a couple of people and saying: 'Well, that will bury Meath for a while'," O'Neill laughs.

"I had to eat my words the following year ... "


O'NEILL would go on to herald the end of a 12-year famine when John O'Leary lifted Sam Maguire that September, his final act as Dublin manager.

But his contribution to Dublin football didn't end there -- not by a long shot.

What is known about the appointment of Pat Gilroy as Dublin manager in October 2008 is that the five wise men who formed the committee to identify a replacement for 'Pillar' Caffrey numbered O'Neill, Robbie Kelleher, Kevin Heffernan, John Costello and Gerry Harrington.

What was presumed, however, after Gilroy's name was plucked from the wilderness, was that Heffernan -- his St Vincent's club-mate and close ally -- had come up with a 'bolter,' and the force of his will drove through the appointment and his preferred Gilroy/Mickey Whelan ticket.

"It was I who suggested Pat," clarifies O'Neill. "There was a little bit of stalemate that had developed in the committee meetings and I suggested that Pat could be a candidate.

"Initially, one of our main principles (Heffernan) on the committee said, 'No, he's a little bit young. But maybe later'. The following morning he rang me and said it was a good idea, let's go for it."

On the Whelan issue, he recalls: "I don't think Mickey was in the equation at all. That was Pat's own doing. Maybe," he smiles, "with a little bit of influence from some St Vincent's mentor or officials or whatever."

Big question though: why Gilroy? His managerial experience was limited to a brief spell as player/manager of St Vincent's and he was, apparently, being lined up to take over as boss of the DCU freshers' team.

As a player, he never had the same national profile as, say, Keith Barr, Paul Curran or Dessie Farrell -- Dublin team-mates of his while O'Neill was in charge.

"I was always impressed with him," O'Neill explains. "He's an intelligent lad. Sometimes intelligence can be a bit of a burden too because you can over-assess situations, but he was very good in the dressing room and in the meeting rooms when the strategy was being thought out and the implications for it were being put in place.

"Pat could see the wood from the trees very clearly. That stuck with me. And, his ability to work with a strategy in an organised fashion. Because sometimes, running football teams can be a bit blunderbuss.

"It is becoming less so but back then, there could be that element to it because individual players and other mentors and others on the periphery of the team can have their own attitude and they influence people."

Given that he effectively identified the man who would bring Dublin back to the promised land, last September must have been a particularly satisfying event for O'Neill, but he's not about to accept any personal credit.

"I always take great satisfaction when Dublin win All-Irelands. Whether it's as a player, a manager or a spectator, and that's the role I was in, so I take great pleasure," he demurs.

"Plus, I know Pat and I worked with him as a player. It was great to see there was continuity because in Dublin teams that win All-Irelands -- even though there are huge gaps between them winning All-Irelands, there has been a string there. There has been a line or a connect."


HE was number seven on the 1977 Dublin team, the last vintage to retain the All-Ireland. His surprise decision to quit in November of 1995 meant he never got a chance to attempt to recapture Sam Maguire from the dugout.

O'Neill's '95 team crumbled under Mickey Whelan, the greying players and new management sparking in all the wrong ways.

It's not something, however, that O'Neill feels should have afflicted that side.

"A change of management shouldn't be that big of a factor," he insists. "When something goes wrong, it is perceived as an issue but it may not be factual."

As an admirer, former manager and kingmaker of Gilroy, O'Neill reckons the current bunch are better-prepared and widely-armed to give it a more sustained attempt.

"It's is very, very difficult.

"The current group, they're probably that bit better equipped in that they hadn't that change (of management), but they are well equipped that if there are evolving issues with regard to players not being up to form, they have four or five from the U21 squad to come on board.

"They should be there or thereabouts anyway. But it would be great to see a Dublin team put back-to-back All-Irelands together again."

Another year of Sam in the capital? Precisely what the doctor ordered.