Bat­tling to book a rare day in the sun

Meath hurlers tar­get a Le­in­ster quar­ter-fi­nal as Laois bid to re­verse decades of de­cline

Sunday Independent (Ireland) - Sport - - GAELIC GAMES - DER­MOT CROWE

THE hurl­ing world hasn’t changed much since Martin En­nis had his day in the sun, 21 years ago. For a Meath hurler, play­ing Of­faly in the Le­in­ster quar­ter­fi­nals in Croke Park, as part of a double-bill fea­tur­ing Wex­ford and Kilkenny, rep­re­sented the sum­mit of a man’s achieve­ment.

He marked Billy Doo­ley. It is doubt­ful Billy Doo­ley will re­mem­ber mark­ing Martin En­nis. When Of­faly scored an early goal Meath braced them­selves for a “long day”. But from there they went toe-to-toe with the team that had reached the pre­vi­ous two All-Ire­land fi­nals, win­ning two years ear­lier.

And now? En­nis is man­ager and Meath are look­ing to poke the bear again, try­ing to see if they can em­bark on a new era of ex­plo­ration. Last year they won the Christy Ring, in re­mark­able cir­cum­stances, mean­ing a re­turn to the Le­in­ster Cham­pi­onship for the first time in 13 years.

Last Sun­day’s re­in­state­ment could not have worked out bet­ter: a win in Na­van over Kerry who were favourites hav­ing hurled two tiers higher than Meath in 2017. The league po­si­tions are mis­lead­ing in that Meath won pro­mo­tion from 2A and Kerry were rel­e­gated from 1B but Kerry were still ex­pected to win. One more vic­tory will see Meath com­pete in the Le­in­ster quar­ter-fi­nals as one of two qual­i­fiers from the four-county round robin also con­tain­ing Laois and West­meath. This af­ter­noon they meet Laois in Na­van. Primed.

“It was huge for us,” re­calls En­nis of their day out with Of­faly in ’96. “We were after win­ning the All-Ire­land B in ’93, we had been build­ing for a while.” They per­formed ad­mirably, los­ing 2-18 to 2-12. Ear­lier in that sea­son they de­feated Of­faly and Wex­ford in the league. En­nis played both days. But soon the gulf be­tween them and the recog­nised coun­ties be­gan to widen and they drifted out of the pu­bic eye. The same year, Meath won the All-Ire­land se­nior foot­ball ti­tle with a young team man­aged by Sean Boy­lan, a hurler in his day. What chance had hurl­ing in a county where foot­ball held such sway? A year later, Of­faly trounced them by 21 points. The fol­low­ing year it was worse: 32 points. They with­drew for a few years, re­turned in 2001, pulled out again after ’04. Dur­ing their last spell in the Le­in­ster Cham­pi­onship, in 2002, they de­feated Laois.

Laois might feel that they shouldn’t be in this com­pany, but only the most de­luded didn’t stop think­ing that a long time ago. See­ing the cri­sis un­fold­ing, Pat Critch­ley and some oth­ers be­gan sow­ing the seeds of a re­vival in their underage teams, where their stock had fallen badly. They are long past Critch­ley’s time, and that of cur­rent se­nior se­lec­tor John Taylor, when they were a con­tender for the Le­in­ster Cham­pi­onship. Their last fi­nal ap­pear­ance was in 1985. They have re­treated to this point, whereas Meath have ad­vanced to­wards it.

In 2013, GAA Congress in Derry was dom­i­nated by the suc­cess of the black card pro­pos­als. The de­ci­sion to re­duce the num­ber of teams com­pet­ing in the MacCarthy Cup race to 13 re­ceived much less at­ten­tion. Part of that was the es­tab­lish­ment of an ini­tial qual­i­fier group in Le­in­ster, which started out with five nom­i­nated coun­ties in 2014 and then was re­duced to four. After some tweak­ing, the top two now reach the Le­in­ster quar­ter­fi­nals after play­ing each other, the bot­tom team is rel­e­gated to the Christy Ring, and the third-placed fin­isher stays put.

Last Sun­day Laois, who de­feated Kerry after ex­tra-time in a play-off to re­main in Divi­sion 1B of the league, over­came West­meath in their first out­ing in the round robin. They fielded an in­ex­pe­ri­enced team with six debu­tants and won in spite of a late scare when the vis­i­tors goaled twice in a bold res­cue bid.

Frank Keenan hurled for Laois into the early 1980s and is a mem­ber of the county board’s hurl­ing steer­ing com­mit­tee. He also served with Paudie But­ler for three years when he man­aged the county team from 2002-’05. “This week­end will be a tough one,” he says. “Meath beat Kerry and Kerry have been a bo­gey team for us in the last few years. It is a very young team at the mo­ment, maybe the youngest team they have had in a while.”

Laois have en­dured some harsh re­al­ity checks in the cham­pi­onship this decade. In 2010, they lost to Carlow. In 2011, they were de­stroyed by Cork by 34 points, con­ced­ing ten goals, in a qual­i­fier. Last year, they lost to Of­faly in Le­in­ster and then went down by 35 points to Clare in the qual­i­fiers. That marked the end of Sea­mus Plun­kett’s man­age­ment reign which had seen some promis­ing per­for­mances. In 2014, they topped the round robin and had a rare cham­pi­onship win over Of­faly to reach the Le­in­ster semi-fi­nals, where Gal­way beat them con­vinc­ingly. Dublin elim­i­nated them from the qual­i­fiers but the round robin sharp­ened their edge for the Of­faly match.

In 2003, Keenan was a se­lec­tor when Laois re­leased the ‘Hurl­ing for Laois’ pro­gramme. But­ler, their man­ager at the time, said it of­fered an “op­por­tu­nity” to a county where young peo­ple should be “go­ing to bed dream­ing of play­ing for Laois”. The foot­ball team won Le­in­ster the same year and it was hoped that this would in­spire the hurlers. Hope is now in­vested in the much-im­proved teams that are com­ing through the county’s devel­op­ment-squad sys­tem, and a quar­ter-fi­nal ap­pear­ance, and a strong per­for­mance is am­bi­tions rest.

Their cur­rent man­ager, Ea­monn Kelly, is fa­mil­iar with the tri­als of the down at heel, hav­ing pre­vi­ously man­aged Kerry. Kelly won the Christy Ring with Kerry in 2015 which earned them a pass to the Le­in­ster Cham­pi­onship’s round-robin se­ries. Last year they won one match and re­tained their sta­tus. Their hopes of mak­ing the quar­ter-fi­nals, still alive, were dented by last week­end’s loss in Na­van. Kelly was in charge of Of­faly last year when they com­peted in the round robin, suf­fer­ing a shock open­ing-round de­feat to West­meath.

It is 24 years since Kerry de­feated Water­ford in the Mun­ster Cham­pi­onship in Walsh Park, after which

could be heard from the win­ning dressing room. Kerry were good at the time but Mun­ster then is not what where the se­nior team’s Mun­ster is now and Kerry have been grate­ful for Le­in­ster’s of­fer of fos­ter care. Their mi­nors also com­pete in the Le­in­ster league.

“It’s a fan­tas­tic op­por­tu­nity for Kerry be­cause other than that we would be out of our depth,” says Ger­ard McCarthy, chair­man of the county’s hurl­ing steer­ing group. “We had a very good game with Meath. I wasn’t sur­prised with Meath’s per­for­mance, prob­a­bly a bit dis­ap­pointed with our own. They play Laois in Na­van and it is a big game for them; they will give Laois plenty of it.”

Kerry had var­i­ous tours of duty in Mun­ster. They with­drew from the MacCarthy Cup in 2001, re­joined in 2003, and spent 11 years in the Christy Ring un­til earn­ing pro­mo­tion back into the main cham­pi­onship race last year. Their hopes of a Le­in­ster quar­ter-fi­nal spot rests on to­day’s match with West­meath. “It is win­ner-takes-all for our­selves and West­meath,” states McCarthy. “Look, it is an All-Ire­land fi­nal for both teams.”

For coun­ties in this so­cial class, news of break­throughs like West­meath’s de­feat of Kilkenny in last year’s Le­in­ster un­der 21 cham­pi­onship is al­ways wel­come. It gives hope that all is not lost and that dreams some might con­sider too far­fetched can come true.

Adrian Mo­ran was the West­meath un­der 21 man­ager that evening, and also served as as­sis­tant se­nior man­ager last year, a role he has since re­lin­quished. “It wasn’t to­tally un­ex­pected,” he says. “The mi­nors had a few good years. We had about 16 lads train­ing with the se­niors from the pre­vi­ous Christ­mas and they were all strong hurlers. If we were not out of the game after 20 min­utes we felt we had a chance. That is when all those top teams do most of their dam­age.”

Mo­ran has been in­volved with West­meath devel­op­ment squads since 2003. In 2015, the mi­nors de­feated Wex­ford in the Le­in­ster quar­ter-fi­nal and they have also beaten Of­faly over the last ten years. In 2001, Laois scored eight goals against West­meath in a mi­nor match and each side of that year Of­faly slaugh­tered them. The progress since then is ex­cep­tional but they can’t ever rest up and this year they took a ham­mer­ing from Kilkenny mi­nors in Mullingar.

Any vic­tory is wel­come and ap­pre­ci­ated. “The se­niors beat­ing Of­faly last year was a big thing,” Mo­ran says. And he is staunchly sup­port­ive of the round-robin model. “Any of the four can make the quar­ter-fi­nals and I def­i­nitely think there is a Le­in­ster semi-fi­nal up for grabs.”

He knows that the loser in Mullingar to­day will be “star­ing rel­e­ga­tion down the bar­rel” and he adds that he would not be sur­prised to see Meath win in Na­van.

A Meath win would match any­thing their man­ager, En­nis, had as a player. When he took over he de­cided they needed to aim higher. They started off by en­ter­ing the Walsh Cup to get stiffer chal­lenges. They have taken tough de­ci­sions. Last year’s cap­tain, James To­her, a dual player, was let go be­cause they felt he didn’t give the nec­es­sary com­mit­ment re­quired with foot­ball di­vid­ing his time. To­her was cap­tain when they won the Christy Ring last year.

“Meath, as we all know, is a tra­di­tional foot­ball county first,” ad­mits En­nis. “Hurl­ing is sec­ond; we are just work­ing hard to stay in Le­in­ster to try to keep Meath hurl­ing up where we be­lieve it can be.”

So, to­day, for the sec­ond week run­ning, four coun­ties meet, and four sim­i­lar sto­ries con­verge. Even in com­pe­ti­tion there’s a nat­u­ral brother­hood which binds them, come what may.

Kerry’s Brendan O’Leary and Mau­rice O’Con­nor in ac­tion against Meath’s Joe Keena and Cor­mac Reilly dur­ing the match at Páirc Tail­teann. (In­set) Meath boss Martin En­nis watches from the side­lines

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