DUBLIN v MEATH Royals best shot is to keep up the goal standard says Nigel Crawford
TIME and the divergent paths of the counties have granted it a different hue.
But on the list of remarkable events that occurred in the summer of 2010, Meath beating Dublin didn’t rank particularly highly.
“If Meath beat Dublin this weekend, it would just be huge – not just in Meath, but all around the country,” notes Nigel Crawford, captain of the Royals that year.
“Whereas when we did it, there was no euphoria, no great sense that we had beaten this great team. They were still vulnerable, they hadn’t really proven themselves.”
A decade on and that summer feels more and more like a glitch in the matrix, a thrilling sequence of unexpected events and a sort of novelty season wedged between the Kerry/Tyrone duopoly of the noughties and the crashing of Dublin’s blue wave in the 2010s.
But all very fleeting.
Cork, the eventual All-Ireland champions, were soon engulfed in a violent tail spin and have only been so far as a semi-final once subsequently, in 2012.
Two of that year’s other semi-finalists; Down and Kildare, haven’t been back in the nine championships played since.
Everywhere you looked that summer, statues were being toppled.
Over a single Bank Holiday weekend, all four provincial champions were beaten in the All-Ireland quarter-finals, unprecedented in the qualifier era.
It was also the last time Louth and Limerick contested provincial finals, as did Sligo in Connacht.
Beating Dublin isn’t even the abiding memory of that summer for Meath.
The subsequent Leinster final against Louth, Joe Sheridan’s goal, ‘Sludden-gate’ and the toxic fallout are all more deeply ingrained in the Royal county consciousness.
So even if the scoreline – 5-9 to 0-13 – and the ‘five past Cluxton’ joke Meath fans retold afterwards linger still in the memory, the rhythm of that summer kept skipping beats, the immediate focus of attention quickly changing direction.
“It wasn’t a game that we dominated,” Crawford admits now of the last time any Leinster team recorded a championship victory over Dublin.
“The number of scores per team – 13 to 14 – tells you it wasn’t a landslide of a game.”
Crawford recalls a moment early in the second half, when Paul Flynn thundered through the Meath cover and crashed a shot off the post at a time when Dublin were just three points down.
“If that goes in, it’s a completely different game,” he reckons now. “The energy and momentum swing is with them. But we went straight up and got one fairly quickly after that.
“And towards the end, it was just a case of they were pressing, we would break and they would be caught without defenders.
“And we had a few lads like Joe (Sheridan) and Stephen Bray, Cian Ward – they all had an eye for goals.”
As, it seems, do this fresh crop of Meath players.
Twelve goals in two championship games is quite the statistic. As was scoring 5-9 – exactly the same total Crawford’s team hit in that Leinster semi-final with Dublin – against Kildare last Sunday.
“I hope it is a team that has goals in them, but it’s hard to know for sure,” Crawford says.
“It’s hard to see them winning it just by creating and converting a higher number of scoring chances unless there’s a couple of goals thrown in there. “
The omens aren’t great.
Dublin are on a run of seven clean sheets in the Leinster championship since May 27, 2018, when James Stafford scored one for Wicklow in Portlaoise.
They have conceded just 13 goals in their 29 unbeaten provincial matches since Meath beat them in 2010, less than half a goal per game.
And in the six meetings (five championship, one league) between the counties since 2010, Meath have managed to hit the Dublin net just twice, albeit they generated four clear goal-scoring chances in the recent league meeting in Parnell Park but failed to convert any.
“The way Dublin play now,” Crawford notes, “it’s very risk-averse. Very formulaic. They don’t take bad options. They’re very patient.
“It used to pain me to say it but I was retired so I could – but I did actually enjoy watching Dublin when they started out on this run.
“And kind of starting warming to them!
“But in recent years, it’s not as easy on the eye. Not quite as exciting. But you have to admire them. They’re a great team. They do it so well.”
During the sporting shutdown back in April, Crawford found himself engrossed in Meath’s 1997 Leinster semi-final replay with Kildare on TG4.
Viewed through the prism of the current prevailing tactical ideology which places such a high value in patience, possession and control, it was akin to watching 70 minutes of sporting anarchy.
A thrilling, almost reckless throwback.
“It was everything that was exiting about football then,” Crawford reckons.
“Like, Niall Buckley would have no problem playing on any team today. A brilliant player. Meath had some super footballers. It was hard, direct football.
“It was just a joy to watch. I probably sound like a dinosaur now talking about the good old days. But it would be great to see more of that.”
In his column for the Herald this week, Alan Brogan recalled the fallout to the Meath defeat in 2010.
On the Tuesday afterwards, he was summoned to a meeting with Pat Gilroy along with his co-accused; Bryan Cullen, Conal Keaney, Barry Cahill and Tomás Quinn.
Gilroy had trawled through footage of the goals, identifying “momentary lapses of concentration.”
“One of us turned our back on a free when it was awarded to Meath,” Brogan wrote, “and another mouthed to the referee when there was something more productive we could have been doing.”
And Meath filled their boots.
What’s noticeable about the origin of the five goals they scored that day is that the assist for four of them came from a kicked-pass of 40 metres or more.
Now, a far higher percentage of goals are created by teams generating overlaps at the end of running moves or swiftly pouncing on an opposition turnover.
“The turnover thing is crucial,” Crawford stresses. “I always thought the most dangerous ball was when a forward took a shot for a point and it dropped short and there was a team mate in the inside line – that’s really dangerous situation.
“It wouldn’t come from anything brilliant. It’s a mis-hit. But it can catch a defence out.
“It can force a defence out of their system because once the shot is taken, you assume the play is over.
“And that’s why turnovers are so valuable now. You’re catching a team when they’re in an attacking formation, when they’re out of their defensive setup and you can get in behind.”
Last Saturday, both Cillian O’Sullivan’s and Joey Wallace’s goals came from Meath forcing Kildare into conceding possession in their own half and then, unleashing a swarm of pacy support-runners.
As Crawford notes: “The days of playing a long-range pass into someone close to goal; they win it, beat the full-back and bury it...it’s very, very rare you see any more.
“And for Meath now, creating goals is crucial. There’s no doubt, it’s their best chance.”