Published: Wednesday, 29th October, 2008 9:45am
FOR a spell back in the late 1980s Meath footballers were regarded by some GAA supporters and journalists in much the same way as Minister for Finance Brian Lenihan might be regarded today in a retirement home. They were public enemy number one.
Winners of the Sam Maguire Cup they were lambasted in the Dublin-based press and beyond for their physical approach and their perceived 'win-at-all-costs" mentality. They were seen as dirty, even ruthless in their pursuit of glory.
Others looked upon them a super heroes, players who had come through adversity to attain the Holy Grail, men who had displayed the class, guts and quality required to win back-to-back All-Ireland SFC titles in 1987 and 1988.
Not surprisingly, those who belonged to this camp were mostly found within the borders of the Royal County.
The Meath, Cork rivalry created deep and bitter feelings that lingered long after the action was completed on the field of play and it wasn"t just observers in both counties who were anxious to express their viewpoint. It became a matter of allegiance, similar to the urban/rural rivalry of the 1970s and early"80s when Dublin and Kerry fought for supremacy.
For Meath, 1988 was special, the year they achieved that elusive two-in-a-row defeating their great rivals in a replay.
The 0-13 to 0-12 victory in the second match - can it be 20 years ago now? - sparked wild celebrations with thousands lining the route home as Sean Boylan and his side brought the Sam Maguire back to the banks of the Boyne.
'A triumph for courage and guts as Meath punish Cork' trumpeted the heading on the Meath Chronicle issue of the 15th October, 1988 above a match report detailing how the Royals had done the business on the big day.
The heading in the same newspaper for the drawn game three weeks previously was radically different. 'Royal Reprieve' was all it said as Chronicle reporter Paul Clarke outlined how Meath had survived a nightmare performance to earn a draw against Cork with a last-gasp, controversial point from sharpshooter Brian Stafford.
'The producers of the television series Survival Special could have done a lot worse than drop into Croke Park at about 4.50 last Sunday as Brian Stafford revived Meath"s footballing dream,' Clarke wrote.
Going into the closing minutes of that game it looked like Cork had done enough to win. The seconds were ticking away and the Munster side led by a point when David Beggy was deemed to have been fouled close in, much to the consternation of Larry Tompkins and Co. Up stepped Stafford to slot the ball between the posts and force a replay.
Afterwards there was a feeling among the Meath camp that Cork had muscled them out of it in the drawn game. They were determined to rectify matters in the replay.
The second game started disastrously for the Leinster champions. Gerry McEntee was sent off after just six minutes following a brief fracas.
Undaunted, Meath imposed themselves. By half-time they trailed by just a point, 0-5 to 0-6. The Meath scores came from Stafford (three frees, one '45"), and a swashbuckling point dug out by Colm O"Rourke.
As the second-half unfolded, Meath started to put daylight between themselves and their opponents with Martin O"Connell putting in a barnstorming display.
Stafford and O"Rourke brilliantly hoisted over a point apiece, both from play. Meath picked up the tempo. Stafford, Bernard Flynn, David Beggy, Joe Cassells, Stafford and O"Rourke again stretched Meath"s advantage to four points. Cork hit back with three late scores. It"s wasn"t enough as Meath held firm. Cork were distraught, Meath were champions.
'We were terrible in the drawn game, but I think the second match was one of our best team performances, winning with 14 men,' recalled Bernard Flynn last week.
'The first day we were very, very lucky. I think after beating Cork the year before we thought we could just go out and do it again. The workrate of the team in the replay with 14 men was exceptional. I thought it was one of our more defining performances. It wasn"t pretty and it was hard work.'
There was talk about begrudgers in the Meath dressing room after the replay and suggestions were made about where they could go.
Meath had taken some criticism for what was perceived as their physical approach after they had won the All-Ireland in 1987. It intensified further when the two-in-a-row was bagged 12 months later. There were rumblings about an anti-Meath bias.
'The journalists wrote about us, but there was no more team sinned against than us. We got absolutely slated in newspapers and I think a lot of it was uncalled for,' added Flynn.
'It came from a lot of Dublin-based journalists who didn"t like a lot of our players. We had a squad that wasn"t that particularly, how should I say it, receptive to journalists.
'I think they were sitting waiting for us and a lot of them didn"t particularly like us. Commentators in TV and radio didn"t like us and they literally hung us out to dry.
'Times were different and football was a lot tougher, There were other tough teams around, they didn"t get the same treatment.'
The theme of a Meath Chronicle article from that time staunchly defended the men in green and gold.
'There were a few wild tackles or challenges, but some Dublin writers made it out to be so much worse ....almost like a brawl. Would they have had the courage to speak so boldly had Dublin been involved?'
The situation wasn"t helped when GAA President John Dowling rowed in with comments at a dinner that included the players from both teams the day after the final.
Dowling spoke about what he felt was the unedyifing physical nature of the replay. He said he was 'disturbed' by what he saw.
Meath players Liam Harnan and Gerry McEntee refused to accept their Celtic Cross medals from him at a presentation night shortly afterwards.
Other players refused to shake his hand. Over time tempers cooled and relationships were restored. One of the regrets Flynn has from those halcyon days is that Meath didn"t go out to win a third All-Ireland.
By achieving the magical third title that group of players, he believes, would have displayed that the team was special. Defeat in the 1990 All-Ireland final put an end to such ambitions.
The Cork, Meath rivalry was one of the most intense in the GAA when it lasted. The views of some journalists in Dublin, Meath and Cork added to the mix during what were exceptional years for football in the Royal County. The golden years.