The sideshows are nearly over and serious players with ambitions for another 10 or 12 weeks of football are starting to hit their stride.
Croke Park will see two such sets of players tomorrow but it will be three weeks before we get to see them face each other. Ever since the draw was made at the end of last year it seemed unlikely that any team other than Kildare and Dublin would be in the Leinster final on July 22.
The elements that have informed the Meath psyche ahead of clashes with Kildare in the past — self-confidence, stubbornness, remorseless and hard-nosed aggression — are no longer readily identifiable in the teams of today. The knock-on effect of that is that Meath supporters have resorted to a mixture of bravado and fatalistic pessimism ahead of the latest scrap with a Kildare team that are now beginning to define all the recent woes of Meath football. Even before Ollie Lyons fisted the winning point in the cracking league contest in Páirc Tailteann in early March, there was a sense that Kildare had it over Meath but few in the Royal county could have predicted the dramatic collapse in the weeks that followed.
One of the things that made Meath such a strange and tough proposition in the past was that they never complained when they were beaten. They just got on with the business of licking their wounds and regrouping. Under the current regime, there always seems to be a reason or excuse for defeat and a strange unwillingness to acknowledge Kildare’s obvious superiority in many aspects of the game. Graham Geraghty’s disallowed goal in last year’s Leinster championship, Seamus Kenny’s unfortunate withdrawal due to injury in the qualifier defeat five weeks later and even some poor refereeing decisions in the most recent league match have all been offered up in mitigation for narrow defeats. Sooner or later, Meath players and their management team in particular are going to have to put up or shut up. Tomorrow is their chance.
Whatever scraps of nourishment Meath may have got from the most recent of their three championship outings will have been offset by the news of Kevin Reilly’s unavailability for tomorrow’s match. Of all the players on the team, Reilly was the most indispensable. With David Gallagher having one of his shakier periods, Reilly’s presence at the edge of the square would’ve offered some comfort but the fear now has to be that Tomás O Connor will have a field day if the supply is as good as it has been recently.
O’Connor is in many respects emblematic of so much of what makes Kildare such a fine side. I have little doubt that part of him wants to be out around midfield, facing the goal, using his natural strength to legitimately plough into fellas and attack the ball. Instead he has developed a role for the sake of the team that sees him engage in muscular tussles to win the ball with his back to the goal and lay it off to the likes of Johnny Doyle, Eoghan O’Flaherty and James Kavanagh. Rarely, if ever, does O’Connor kick the ball. Hugh McGrillen, Rob Kelly and Mikey Conway are just further examples of Kildare players playing in possibly alien positions, sacrificing their game for the greater good.
Dublin have learnt the value of such sacrifice some time ago and now it appears from their confidence-building romp against Louth at the start of June that they’ve come to realise there is no great swank to being defending All Ireland champions. The bankruptcy of the Louth challenge meant we didn’t get to see some of the chinks that had crept into the Dublin game during the league but all the fundamental elements that defined their best moments last year were there against Louth, allied with a merciless streak that so many defending champions have difficulty in recreating.
Pat Gilroy spoke earlier in the week of the clever game-plan that Wexford brought to last year’s Leinster decider. That plan centred on bottling up Bernard Brogan and limiting the options available to him when in possession. It worked to a large degree because of Graeme Molloy’s tenacity, because of Brogan’s selfishness and because of his insistence on taking on shots from crazy angles and distances. That game marked the last time we saw Bernard Brogan in the hubristic mood of old and by the time they played Donegal in that infamous semi-final seven weeks later, Brogan had become a zen-like figure of imperturbability, patiently plotting a way through the fog. Winning last year’s All-Ireland has made better players of all the boys in blue and should they encounter the sticky patches of last year against Wexford tomorrow, they can draw on that experience.
While Wexford have never managed to recreate the starburst that marked Jason Ryan’s first year in charge, they still retain a certain respectability within the game. We saw in the two matches against Longford that the free-flowing football of last year has, by necessity, been changed to a more cautious and mature game that sees the abandon and freedom of other years replaced by an emphasis on the defensive game so prevalent today. Still, it must be encouraging for Wexford to know that Redmond Barry will trouble Philly McMahon, Ben Brosnan and Shane Roche can give James McCarthy and Ger Brennan enough of it and Brian Malone and Adrian Flynn should more than hold their own at the back.
Over the last two seasons Wexford have held up against the likes of Cork, Galway and even Dublin and despite not having reached any great heights so far this year, have to believe they are once again capable of their annual once-off performance. The recent injury to Ciarán Lyng could hold him back, as could captain David Murphy’s lay off ahead of his tussle with Alan Brogan. For Wexford to prosper tomorrow, every player has to make their contribution count for something true and worthy. Even at that, Dublin should still win.