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Royal rout that led to rise of an empire

Famous 2010 victory spurred Dubs as Meath slipped back

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ON FIRE: Cian Ward faces Hill 16 to celebrate scoring Meath’s second goal during the Leinster SFC semi-final at Croke Park in 2010. Photo: Sportsfile

ON FIRE: Cian Ward faces Hill 16 to celebrate scoring Meath’s second goal during the Leinster SFC semi-final at Croke Park in 2010. Photo: Sportsfile

SPORTSFILE

ON FIRE: Cian Ward faces Hill 16 to celebrate scoring Meath’s second goal during the Leinster SFC semi-final at Croke Park in 2010. Photo: Sportsfile

Tomorrow is a significant anniversary in the story of the greatest Dublin team ever. But not for any reasons of raucous, back-slapping celebration.

On June 27, 2010, Dublin suffered their last defeat in Leinster SFC combat. This wasn't any old loss, either: they succumbed by 11 points to their fiercest foe after leaking five goals, four of those in an imploding second half.

Meath would never have it so good again. Dublin wondered could it get any worse?

For a team previously so dominant in Leinster but so susceptible to hara-kiri beyond, a watershed moment had arrived.

Was the 'startled earwig' analogy coined a year earlier by their own manager, Pat Gilroy, about to become an unshakeable stereotype?

A decade on, Barry Cahill is asked if there was a danger of the squad unravelling. "Oh, absolutely," the former Dublin player agrees. "It was a very difficult time. And there was definitely a lot of head-scratching.

"We obviously would have had a couple of chats after the Meath game, out in DCU, in St Clare's where we trained. And then we were heading into the unknown because we hadn't been in the back door since 2004.

"We got a soft enough draw against Tipperary, which helped us get back on our feet. And then the Armagh game, even though they weren't at the peak of their powers, it was still an important win for us.

"So, we were lucky enough that we were able to rebuild the season with a couple of results. But, yeah, it was a tricky time for players, probably more for the senior lads like myself and Alan (Brogan) and Bryan Cullen and Stephen Cullen and a few others.

"And also for the management team: they're 18 months into their term and, you know, you had the Kerry defeat from the previous year and then that poor Meath defeat.

"Confidence was low from the general Dublin support base … we had a bit of rebuilding to do."

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From these creaking foundations, an empire has risen. Nine consecutive Leinster titles laid the platform for seven All-Irelands, making it the most decorated decade ever enjoyed by a Sam Maguire contender.

But Dublin's provincial stranglehold has merely re-emphasised the comparative failure of all their neighbours, especially Meath and Kildare, the two counties best equipped, on the population metric, to carry the fight.

Between 1997 and 2004, in an unrivalled era of Gaelic football glasnost, six counties shared eight Leinster titles; but the signs of slippage became apparent from '05 onwards as Dublin won five on the spin … and from '11 onwards, the province has lost any lingering pretence of competitiveness.

In those nine years, Dublin have won all 27 Leinster fixtures by an average of over 14 points. Over the last three summers, those margins have been at or near record levels.

Truth is, given the next generation of future greats about to spring forth from the minor class of 2011, Dublin were always liable to pull away. But does that explain how Meath, having battled manfully in '12 and '13, lost their next three head-to-heads by margins of 16, ten and 16 points?

There are myriad reasons why Meath have fallen off a cliff, vis-à-vis Dublin, but the fallout from the subsequent Leinster final debacle against Louth - when they pilfered victory thanks to Joe Sheridan's 'ghost' goal - hastened their decline.

Anthony Moyles was a veteran wing-back in 2010. Speaking to The Herald in early March, ahead of a putative league derby duly scuppered by Covid-19, he admitted: "It mos t definitely had an effect on that squad … it had an effect in the sense of Eamonn O'Brien and Bobby O'Malley and the management team were fired out."

Meath had reached All-Ireland semi-finals in '07 and '09; but the county board's move for an outside manager, Séamus McEnaney, backfired. "There was a lot of animosity; there was a lot of conflict between management and between some of the senior players. And that, as you know well, never ends well for anyone," Moyles concluded.

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But what if, on that fateful June afternoon in 2010, Paul Flynn's 45th minute piledriver had located netting instead of woodwork? At the time, Dublin only trailed by three. A fast-paced first half had contained "brilliant football," Moyles noted. "I think we were evenly pitched. It definitely wasn't a ten-point (game)."

But within minutes of Flynn's near-miss, Stephen Bray had rounded Cluxton for Meath's third goal and then Sheridan buried a fourth.

Game over. Time for the post-mortems.

The Meath collapse came one year after a 17-point massacre by Kerry (on Gilroy's watch) and two summers after a 12-point trouncing by Tyrone (Paul Caffrey's swansong). So, you could argue, Meath was merely part of a trend. Yet, according to Barry Cahill, it was also a "light bulb" moment.

"We actually did have a good league campaign in 2010," he recounts. But then, pre-championship, they tweaked their defensive system to embrace zonal marking.

"We made a conscious decision to mark space as opposed to mark men," he explains. "We hadn't worked on it enough in training or in competitive matches for everybody to be on the same page."

They almost came unstuck against Wexford, battling back from the brink to win in extra-time. Then the wheels came off against Meath.

As Cahill explains, Dublin would eventually settle on a balance between man-for-man and zonal. But this was only part of the change required.

"Pat decided, 'Okay, I can't just have the best 15 players on the pitch, I need to look at it from a collective perspective,'" he surmises. "We were moving in the right direction that year, but defensively we weren't as sound and there were gaps there. And that was throughout the pitch."

In time, Cahill would view that Meath meltdown as "a catalyst for change" and therefore a positive.

"There was a habit in some of the bigger games that we were conceding too many scores," he expands. "Teams were racking up fairly high scores against us - hurling scores really. And we were never going to be able to outshoot some of the top teams like Tyrone and Kerry in knockout matches, conceding those goal chances.

"We still had probably the best 'keeper in the country … but if you're giving up five or six goal chances in a match, forget about it."

Gilroy made five changes, one enforced, for Dublin's opening qualifier against Tipperary. Cahill was among those axed, prompting one erroneous radio report that he had quit the panel.

"My phone was hopping - between friends and former Dublin teammates and journalists!" he remembers. "It was obviously completely false. It would never be in my DNA to walk away from a team or anything like that, or throw my toys out of the pram, even though I'd been in the team since 2001, as an ever-present.

"It was more a case of chatting to Pat about it and redoubling my efforts or trying to do things slightly differently."

He was recalled for the next game against Armagh, another important pitstop in the rebirth of a wounded team.

Eventually they came up tantalisingly short to Cork in the semi-final. A year later, they were champions. You know the rest …

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Ten years ago, even as outsiders, Meath and Kildare were in the equation for Sam. Ever since, Cahill has spied "little snippets" of a renaissance but neither county has ever sustained it.

"They need to be seasoned Division 1 teams, and minimum All-Ireland quarter-final every year if they are to be a bit more competitive with Dublin," the 2007 All Star says. "Because Dublin aren't going anywhere."

This year's delayed championship is poised to retain the provincial structure, but without the second chance detour offered to Dublin in 2010.

"If there's a Leinster championship this year, I'll be a little bit demoralised, to be honest! It just won't excite me at all on any level," Cahill admits.

"I'm a competitive sportsman still; I love watching competitive sport, whether it's soccer, NFL, whatever it might be. Just the inevitability of those results, for Dublin teams versus the other Leinster counties, is too much.

"It would be nice if something else was put on the table, as an alternative, to try and get teams up to that level."

Exactly ten years on, 2010 must seem like a different century.