Proud Yank Rooney recalls Sam's visit to school

On the national scene Meath are very well represented with many high-profile and well-regarded journalists plying their trade in sport, politics and current affairs.

In a series of features over the last few weeks FERGAL LYNCH asked some of those national journalists to take time out from their hectic schedules to pen a few words recalling their favourite sporting memory.

Today we feature Off The Ball's Tommy Rooney who remembers with great fondness the time Meath brought home Sam Maguire after the 1999 All-Ireland final win over Cork.

ALTHOUGH he was born in New York, his garden is in Cavan and he went to school in Monaghan, Tommy Rooney is a Meath Hill man – part of the team that won the 2017 JFC and are now playing in the Intermediate grade. He completed an undergraduate in journalism (and tried to play as much football as possible) in DCU, and managed to get the foot in the door of Off The Ball during college. He’s been working with OTB since the summer of 2014, and is currently the producer of OTB AM – Ireland’s first and only sports breakfast show, on Off The Ball.

SEPTEMBER 1999. It’s the last All-Ireland final of the millennium and Croke Park is rocking. The old Hogan Stand is on its last legs, and the clash of green and gold, and red and white suits the place, as does the noise.

“Treacherous conditions, slippery underfoot and greasy ball.” – was how the Irish Times described the day, I could swear it looked like a nice one flicking through the highlights; it’s easy to judge from the armchair!

Anyways, in the 25th minute – Trevor Giles, in that iconic sleeveless jersey, collects a ball from Darren Fay. Scanning his options around the halfway line, Giles launches a bomb towards Geraghty.

Trevor Giles raising the Sam Maguire Cup. Photographer: John Quirke

The Cork full-back, Seán Óg Ó hAilpín is in the right place to deal with it, but the Meath captain finds a way to break the ball into Ollie Murphy’s path. Murphy does what Murphy did – and buries a truly brilliant goal.

It was beautifully executed, the type of goal that might be sniffed at in this age of ‘modern football’ and recycling possession – but just go and watch back how instinctively Giles-Geraghty-Murphy combined for that score.

Ollie Murphy does indeed feature in my favourite Meath memory – but it ain’t that goal – because truth be told, without the glut of GAA nostalgia we were treated to over last summer, I’m not sure I’d even seen it before.

Meath'sOllie Murphy Meath has his jersey tested by Anthony Lynch, Cork.Photo: John Quirke / Photographer: John Quirke

One sunny morning, a few days after Graham Geraghty got to lift the Sam Maguire over his head – Sam himself arrived out for a visit to a small primary school tucked away in North Meath.

I was six years-old when Sam came to visit, and even worse, I was a Yank and proud of it – still had the accent and all at that stage, my family having only just returned to Ireland from New York in the summer of 1999.

I’m easy to spot in the photo, my sister Aoife and I, perched at the front in a pair of matching yellow jumpers - the Meath jerseys must have been in the wash!

You can be sure that the significance of the day sailed over my head at the time. How could you possibly comprehend at that age, just how much an All-Ireland winning side means to its people?

I do remember the giddiness, the excitement, the pride of it all – I knew Ray Magee was there, and maybe Ollie Murphy.

When I got asked to pick out my favourite Meath memory for this column, that day sprung to mind immediately, it’s one you can’t forget, but I thought it might be worthwhile ringing around for a few more memories!

The first number I dialled was Ross McGrath’s, a teammate in Meath Hill. Ross was a bit older than me that day and I was sure he’d have something good – straight away he confirmed my suspicions that Ollie Murphy had been there, “The one thing I remember was how long we had to wait, we were so excited, but we were stuck in the classroom for ages while everyone was outside. I remember looking out and asking myself why on earth it was taking Ollie Murphy so long to get out of the car.”

So, I rang Ollie, and his memories were even better – “I can remember it well. Fintan Ginnity landed up to Jody Devine’s house and dragged us up and out into the car. We were travelling across the county all day long. It was great stuff – just all the kids wanting to meet you and kick ball and have the craic, and then you’re back into the car again and on the move – sick as pigs – sure it was only a few days after the All-Ireland.”

There was a fine North Meath contingent on the move that day, the core of the touring party was Murphy, Paul Shankey, Ray Magee, Jody Devine, Barney Allen, James Reilly and Fintan Ginnity.

Jody Devine reckons it was the Wednesday after the All-Ireland and confirmed that a group of the lads had stayed in his home that night. “The first school was Oristown before 9am and thankfully we were handed a coffee right away! With Fintan driving and trying to keep us to the times, we were on the move all day, going from school to school, you were signing all you could before it was time to go. Each school was as mad as the next!”

You will spot a fresh-faced Ray Magee in the picture alongside my brother Seán, sitting snug in the Sam Maguire. ‘Smoothie’ had more memories about the madness of the Carrickleck visit that morning.

“Well, the first thing to put straight is that the adults were more excited than the kids, the place was just absolutely packed, with people everywhere. I can remember a wee girl asked me to sign her top and I was afraid to ruin it on her, but she just turned around and roared at me to sign it and I can remember one man in Meath Hill shaking hands with us, saying well done and offering us money to go off and have a few pints for ourselves. Everyone was just so happy.”

Looking back on the match, nothing came easy that September afternoon in 1999 – Trevor Giles remarked in the hours afterwards. “in an All-Ireland, you can't choose to play brilliantly so you just try and do the things you think will win you the game."

Meath had to bounce back from a slow start, a missed penalty, a Joe Kavanagh wonder-goal – but for me, Murphy’s goal, was the perfect Boylan score, within the perfect Boylan performance.

It was the sprinkling of gold dust that is so often overlooked when it came to analysing those great Meath teams – sure enough, they could hit harder and run longer and they were never, ever really beaten – but their ability with a ball didn’t ever get enough credit.

That was Meath’s fourth All-Ireland title under Sean Boylan in 12 years, but the winter of 1999 would also be the last time that the Sam Maguire went on tour across the county.

Who knows when Sam will be back in Meath, but whenever it is – we’ll make the very best memories again!

26-09-1999. Meath v Cork - All-Ireland SFC Final at Croke Park.Meath Captain Graham Geraghty raising the Sam Maguire Cup.Photo: John Quirke /©John Quirke Photography, 16 Proudstown Road, Navan. Co. Meath. ( / 046-9028461 / 087-2579454). Photographer: John Quirke
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