| 8.2°C Dublin

DUBLIN v MEATH Old foes can roll back the years as Dubs back in Parnell Park after 10 years to face rivals Meath


Close

Bernard Brogan kicked 11 points when Dublin last played a big game at Parnell Park

Bernard Brogan kicked 11 points when Dublin last played a big game at Parnell Park

Bernard Brogan kicked 11 points when Dublin last played a big game at Parnell Park

Tonight in Donnycarney, the crash and wallop of inter-county bodies colliding in a spectator vacuum will echo into your socially-distant living rooms.

Dublin and Meath in the rare old times? Anything but. Covid has transformed our lives and our livelihoods and even our relationship with sport.

It has altered something else too - it has brought the Dublin footballers back to Parnell Park for the first time in over a decade.

These neighbouring rivals were originally meant to meet in Croke Park back in March; but that was a different world, not just a different month, and so the pandemic has conspired to put a deserted Parnell back on the map.

If you ignore O'Byrne Cup outings, the capital's flagship footballers haven't lined out at their official home since March 27, 2010.

That was their penultimate league game of the season, their last one at home - and Pat Gilroy's team in transition lost to Galway by a goal, 1-14 to 0-14.

Bernard Brogan was already on his way to becoming Footballer of the Year; he scored 0-11 that night, 0-4 from play, and still it wasn't enough.

"We felt the smaller pitch would suit us," recalls Joe Kernan, who managed Galway that season. The Armagh icon reflects on Dublin's glorious transformation over the past 10 years, and yet part of him reckons: "Any team that plays Dublin outside Croke Park would have a wee fancy for themselves."

It's a moot point whether a Meath team already doomed to relegation will "fancy themselves" this evening. Then again, it's impossible to make any pre-match pronouncements based on current form. All we can go on is pedigree and past achievements - pre-pandemic.

On that score, it should be no contest. Jim Gavin may have moved on, to be replaced by Dessie Farrell, but most of the on-field mainstays remain.

What has made Dublin so unstoppable? A conveyor belt of talent, masterful management, a selfless culture and unshakeable belief have all been pivotal to those seven All-Irelands, nine Leinsters and five league titles accumulated since 2010.

But, without question, it has also aided Dublin's cause to play so many matches in Croke Park.

Since the aforementioned loss to Galway, they have played 107 League and Championship matches at GAA HQ. They have won 88 of them, drawing eight and losing just 11.

The league breakdown is played 47, won 35, drew five and lost seven. The SFC record is better again: played 60, won 53, drew three and lost four.

"Of course it has a bearing," says Kernan of the Croker factor. "It's a home from home for them. They're in the same dressing room all the time, which infuriates the odd people in the country. They really want to perform on that big stage in Croke Park. The Hill's the Hill, they're guaranteed a big crowd when they go there.

"But the whole thing has changed with the coronavirus now. There's no crowds. It will be a wee bit eerie.

"But this present bunch of Dublin boys have something to prove to themselves, to the management - that they can continue on the form that has made them probably the greatest team of all time this last 10-12 years.

"So, boys will be putting down a marker in these two League matches, to get in the first 15 for the Championship. And I'm sure Dessie's standards haven't dropped from what Jim and the boys had over the years."

You have to trawl even further back - to June 12, 2004 - for the last time Dublin played a Championship match at their county grounds.

This was just six days after they had been torpedoed out of Leinster by Westmeath; Croker wasn't such a welcoming cathedral back then, reflected in the verbal abuse that rained down on manager Tommy Lyons as he left the pitch.

If Dublin were wounded and vulnerable like never before, perhaps it was just as well that the qualifier draw pitted them against a London team that had just leaked eight goals to Galway.

Speaking earlier this week, Jason Sherlock recalled those fraught few days. "It was certainly a low ebb for us," the former Dublin forward acknowledged.

"I actually remember talking to Tommy to see if we could play the game in London because I thought that might be better for the benefit of the squad, just to get out of Dublin."

Paddy Quinn was playing midfield for London that summer. Almost a decade later, the Tyrone native would become a member of Gavin's maiden league squad, starting the new manager's first league outing of 2013 - against Cork in Croke Park.

"I actually marked Ciarán Whelan that day, Declan was the other midfielder," he clarifies. And his recall of the game itself? "Jesus, we got an awful hammering." For the record, it finished 3-24 to 0-6, Alan Brogan top scoring for the Dubs with 2-4.

Whereas Sherlock had suggested Ruislip as the ideal venue, Quinn's initial hope was that the game would be fixed for Croker - "but obviously we weren't big enough!"

For this young Exile, however, it was huge experience facing such vaunted opposition.

"It was kind of bizarre but in terms of a contest the match was all one-way," he recounts.

"I actually remember Jayo coming out at half-time, and the game was on and Jayo still signing an autograph . . . the ball was thrown up and there were still young lads getting shooed off the pitch."

Fast forward 16 years and Dublin, unlike that team of 2004, have broken every record in the book. Quinn is of a mind with Kernan: playing so frequently in Croke Park has helped Dublin because their players are "so familiar with that space - the awe factor isn't there for them really when it comes to the bigger days."

And yet, he is equally quick to clarify, "I certainly wouldn't put it down as a major reason as to why they've gone on to achieve so much."

In short, Meath will need more than a venue switch to level the playing field to get a result tonight.

Herald