Back in 1996 when young players would meet up at Johnny Ryan’s shop in the centre of the poky little village, Ratoath’s population numbered 1,061.
Fergal Power came home from New York that same year and remembers a sleepy little village that time almost forgot.
What Ratoath did have going for it, however, was its placement on Dublin’s commuter belt and when the housing boom begun there, well, it was quite the boom.
A decade after Power’s return, the 2006 official census reported a population rise to 7,249 in the village, an astounding increase.
Ratoath’s present population is over 9,000 though for the purposes of explaining why the GAA club was quite so smug, rewind back to 2006 for a moment.
That year’s official census document reported ‘Dublin’s commuter belt towns have the highest proportion of young people aged 0-14 years with Ratoath having the highest at 32 per cent.’ For a club that had never enjoyed senior status, or ever played in an intermediate final, their lottery numbers had suddenly come up.
Almost overnight, they’d been presented with a massive pool of young talent to shape and mould.
But the revolution has been slow, surprisingly so and it was only last month Ratoath actually turned senior for the first time, as intermediate champions, with Power as manager.
Neighbouring parishes along the same commuter belt which similarly mushroomed in the boom years, like Ashbourne, Dunshaughlin and Dunboyne, haven’t exactly blossomed as expected either.
“I actually think it’s probably another generation of players away from happening as everyone expected,” said Power. “I’d imagine Dunboyne, Ashbourne, Dunshaughlin, Ratoath, all those clubs are all going to be very competitive at senior level over the next few years, absolutely.
“But the reality, for ourselves anyway, is we didn’t get that huge influx you might have expected. What you actually found was a lot of the good GAA lads from Dublin who came into the community 10 or 15 years ago, they felt tied to their original clubs in Dublin and raised there kids up through those clubs.
“But a lot of those kids are growing up now and I think it’ll be different when they have kids themselves, they’ll settle here and play for Ratoath. That’s why you’re probably talking about another generation.” Still, the revolution is clearly gathering some pace. Until recently, only a couple of Ratoath players had ever played competitively for Meath (1999 All-Ireland medallist Nigel Crawford left for Dunboyne in his teens).
Against Wicklow last June, Power’s son, Brian, made his first Championship start and had three club colleagues on the panel; Brian McMahon and the Wallace brothers. Conor McGill and Bobby O’Brien have played for Meath too and the list will grow in 2016.
Eamon Wallace is perhaps the best known and the one player Athlone will be paying most attention to this afternoon. The corner- forward’s 1-3 against Tyrone in the 2013 Championship looked like the start of a big career until his 2014 season was wiped out by a cruciate knee ligament injury. He’s back now and has retained the blistering pace that saw him cover 100 metres in just over 11 seconds at Santry Stadium in 2012.
“He’s a special talent,” agreed Power. “I remember at an underage game years ago Eamon just taking off and leaving three players behind him, then coming upon another three and doing the same before getting a shot away. His pace was always unbelievable.
“But what’s good about this team is that different lads have been stepping up at different times. You can’t expect 15, 16 or 17 to deliver all the time but one or two of the marquee lads seem to step it up each day. If it’s not Eamon it’s Bobby or it might be Brian.”
Power’s panel is obviously strong. In the three Leinster championship games so far — which they’ve won by margins of six, 19 and 13 points — they’ve used 23 different players. In the county championship, 27 different players saw action.
Unsurprisingly, they are strong fancies to beat Athlone and book a place alongside the Munster champions — St Mary’s of Kerry or Cork’s Carrigaline — in a January All-Ireland semi-final.
“What I would say to that is that Athlone are the most successful team in Westmeath’s history,” retorted Power. “They’ve a serious pedigree. As regards being a senior club, winning championships and competing in Leinster, their club has done it many times. We won the Leinster junior title in 2004 but this is our first foray at this level.
“Yeah, we have lads starting out with Meath but they have lads with more experience at county level too. We’re expecting a really, really hard time and if we win we’ll have earned it.”