John Fallon speaks to Eamonn O’Brien about facing down Dublin before the dominance that we know now so well.
Westmeath were supposed to be the quarry this weekend. Dessie Farrell was to make his senior Championship debut as manager, but everything else would carry on as normal.
Dublin would extend their winning run in Leinster to 28 games and make it an extraordinary 45 provincial wins from 46 games since 2005.
Provincial football hasn’t known domination like it — Dublin’s ninth consecutive Delaney Cup last year eclipsed Kerry’s two eight-in-a-rows in Munster.
Not many of the current Dublin panel know much about Leinster defeats either — Stephen Cluxton, Philly McMahon, Rory O’Carroll, Michael Fitzsimons, Michael Darragh Macauley, and Kevin McManamon the only players who were involved in the last Leinster SFC loss 10 years ago.
Bearing in mind they went on to claim 25 All-Ireland medals and nine All-Stars between them, it’s incredible to think that the first four men in that list were cruelly exposed that day as Meath took them for five goals.
It didn’t feel like a watershed moment for then Meath manager Eamonn O’Brien, but there was a naivety to Dublin’s game that Pat Gilroy spent the rest of the summer eradicating.
“They left themselves exposed a lot at the back that day,” recalls O’Brien.
“Stephen Bray wasn’t tackled for 60 yards for one of the goals. Things just went our way against Dublin who had chances. After one of our goals, I think (Paul) Flynn hit the post and it came back out maybe 40 or 50 yards. If they had got a goal it was possibly a different game.
"They won the All-Ireland the following year so they definitely took things on board. They learned to hold their positions more, especially at half-back. The year they won it, Ger Brennan held the centre-back area whereas before he used to love going forward. Your full-back line doesn’t get exposed like that anymore. It’s not man-for-man anymore. You can’t just win your 50-50 battle and expect to win the game.”
Dublin had been fancied to reach a sixth straight Leinster final, but there was nothing hugely surprising about the result even if the number of goals conceded were excessive. They needed extra-time to see off Wexford in the game before and Meath had a bone to pick with them from the previous season.
Losing that Leinster opener in his Championship debut was a real sickener for Seán Boylan’s former selector O’Brien.
“We were very unlucky the previous year. They beat us by two points.
“There was a chap from Kilmacud playing, Mark Davoren, and he did his cruciate between the Nally Stand and the Hogan Stand. I can still see him. It must have been 10 minutes before they got him off the field. He never played after that. (Referee) Martin Duffy played two minutes of injury-time and we had played awful in the first half and we were getting into our stride in the second and were completely on top.
“He blew the whistle for full-time when the ball was in the air and I can still see Peadar Byrne running down the field kicking a long ball down on Joe Sheridan and the whistle blowing. The ball actually hopped over the bar.
“Even though they missed an awful lot in the first half and really should have been out of sight, we were still with them. Had the game gone on another four or five minutes, we would have possibly caught them. It’s amazing the gap has opened so much since those games.”
Leinster, O’Brien knows, has become a forgettable competition where Dublin have needed little or nothing to go their way.
Beyond it, they have occasionally been fortunate, he argues.
“It is very worrying when one team dominates, it’s not good for the game, but you can’t blame Dublin for that. It’s up to other counties to catch up. Having said that, Dublin have been fortunate as well even though they have a superb bunch of players. It will be interesting when two or three of those players go, will the replacements be as good or will it level off?
“A few of their All-Irelands, they were lucky to win. Mayo probably should have beaten them. I thought even the first one they won in 2011 when (Stephen) Cluxton got the point, Kerry threw that one away more than Dublin won it. Kerry had the game won and started fluting around and even the last free that Cluxton kicked over was on the soft side. They won two All-Irelands after replays. For all their brilliance, two All-Irelands could have gone another way.
“But Leinster is worrying in that there isn’t a lot of competition there. Meath, Kildare, the teams you expect (to challenge Dublin), are still not going to be there in the next year or two. They don’t seem to be ready to challenge just yet. Dublin are phenomenal, they have such talent, particularly in the forwards, and when you have that you’re always going to be able to win games.”
The softly-spoken O’Brien laughs at the suggestion he stirred the beast 10 years ago. It’s not a victory he considers any more significant in the context of what was to follow.
“We don’t look it at like that. We love playing Dublin and the challenge of playing them because they were huge occasions with the crowds and they bring out the best in you. That’s what it was all about. It was just the challenge of it and hopefully what it would bring out of you because that would define you.”