‘Big crowds showed up because they expected fireworks’
There was something about the sky blue jersey of Dublin that inspired Mattie McCabe. At least that's what all the evidence suggests because the Seneschalstown man developed the knack of scoring goals against Meath's great rivals that was noteworthy to say the least, notching up a unique record few have managed to equal.
He scored three goals in three successive Leinster SFC finals against the Auld Enemy- 1987, '88 and '89 silencing the serried ranks of the Dublin supporters with crisp and clinical finishing past famed goalkeeper John O'Leary. Those goals helped Meath win two of those three finals; '87 and '88 while in '89 the Metropolitans prevailed.
As affable, self-effacing and quietly-spoken a man you are likely to meet in a jaunt around the GAA grounds of Meath, McCabe speaks of those years like they were truly a golden era; when life was full of sparkle and promise, when he and his colleagues regularly performed before a packed Croke Park in Leinster and All-Ireland finals; when the old stadium rocked with noise and tension.
"The buzz would start around March and April because it was around then you really started to prepare for the championship and more often than not we would have to face Dublin somewhere along the line," McCabe recalls.#
"The three goals I got against them were special to me, still are, it was wonderful to get them, but it was always a team effort. I wouldn't have got them unless the the chances were created for me."
McCabe relished the prospect of facing the Dubs. He knew what to expect when the old rivals clashed. The games were rarely short of controversy or Hollywood moments. High drama. There was a kind of code attached to the Dublin matches too. A kind of chivalry code of honour. Unwritten, unstated but there nonetheless. That code dictated that when the action started you gave it everything, no matter what side you were on. Everything. Then when the final whistle sounded you shook your rivals' hands and wished them luck. Win, lose or draw.
"There was no half-measures, all the games were hard-hitting. Big crowds showed up because they expected fireworks and they often got that, not fisticuffs, that rarely happened, but you got the hits and gave them and everything was left on the field. It's was certainly hell for leather. People would say I wouldn't get involved but I did get involved, I wouldn't shy away. There were a few thumps thrown from time to time but they were forgotten about at the final whistle."
Mattie McCabe, who works in Tara Mines, was part of Meath's set-up from even before Sean Boylan took the reigns in 1982. He knew all about the bad times, the barren years. Then things started to change under Boylan. McCabe won O'Byrne Cup and Centenary Cup medals but he was missing when Meath made the really big breakthrough and defeated Dublin in 1986 to win their first Leinster title in 20 years. McCabe watched the game from the stands.
He had, he admits, focused more on socialising that year than football, and was left off the panel. He came back the next season and played his part in helping Meath defeat Dublin (1-13 to 0-12) in another Leinster final before the Royals pushed on to win the Sam Maguire. He was there again in '88 once more finding the net to help sink the Dubs, 2-5 to 0-9. He found the net in the '89 Leinster showdown too, but on that occasion Dublin prevailed, 2-12 to 1-10.
Then, of course, there was 1991, the four-game series and the scintillating closing stanzas of the saga when Meath bounced back from what seemed like certain defeat to win helped along by one of the most famous goals in GAA history.
Mattie McCabe was one of the players involved in processing the ball from Meath's own end-line to the point where Kevin Foley slammed the ball from close range to the Dublin net at the other end.
Not only was McCabe involved in transferring the ball from one end of the field to the other he contributed in another very significant way.
"During that move Foley and myself had a little chat. If you look at the video you will see, for a split second, the two of us having a chat in the middle of the field. I told Kevin to push on because they will be watching for me, expecting me to be in the forwards. ‘They won't expect you,' I said to Kevin and of course he went on to score the goal.
"Foley came over to me in the dressing room afterwards, no-one else did. Everyone was congratulating him. He came over and hugged me and he said: 'Mattie I knew what you were doing I'll always remember what you told me to do.’ Kevin wrote himself into the history books with that goal and rightfully so."
During the 1980s and early '90s Meath, says McCabe, didn't focus much on tactics but what the team had were leaders who knew what it took to win games and what to do when events weren't going their way.
Looking to the present team McCabe is not as pessimistic about their prospects this Sunday as some might expect. Every team, he asserts, no matter how well stacked with talent, is beatable on any given day. He points to how last year after a poor opening half in the Leinster SFC Meath really upped their game and ran their rivals close.
"Last year people say Dublin took their foot off the pedal. I don't think they did. Meath just got stuck in, they pressed them more, they didn't give them any time on the ball. A lot will depend on how Meath feel themselves, do they believe they can win? In big games in Croke Park against Dublin you just never know what might happen."
Meath will almost certainly need to score a few goals on Sunday if they hope to win. Goals are not easily mined against this Dublin defence - although Mattie McCabe had the knack of finding a chink in the blue armour and making the net dance. The records are there to prove it.