Andy McEntee is a manager on the up, on the verge of elevating Meath to a first Leinster final in five years, having already masterminded a return to Division 1 in the Allianz league.
Yet, he should be worried, very worried, because when Meath teams come up against Laois in the championship, it is typically the Royal County manager that has come off worst. Seamus ‘Banty’ McEnaney’s last act as Meath manager, in 2012, was to shake hands with Justin McNulty after a qualifier defeat to Laois, while Eamonn Barry suffered the same fate in 2006, the agony of Meath’s loss to Laois that year compounded by the fact that it was in Navan.
Rewind back to 1992 and it was Meath’s shock, three-point loss to Laois, in the opening round of the Leinster championship, that ultimately broke up a great team that had won two All-Ireland finals, and lost two more, since 1987. That golden era, under Sean Boylan, surely wouldn’t have materialised if the Dunboyne herbalist hadn’t survived attempts to remove him after the county’s infamous defeat to Laois in 1985.
Before that encounter in Tullamore, Meath hadn’t lost to Laois in the Championship since 1938, and having won the 1984 Centenary Cup and contested the Leinster final, they were expected to return to the provincial decider in ’85. They’d already taken care of Larry Tompkins, and Kildare, in the quarter-finals, and had Dublin firmly in their sights, a complacency that cost dearly, as Laois beat them by 10 points.
In a feature-length interview with Boylan, conducted by the GAA’s website, in 2015, it was explained how close the man who subsequently won four All-Irelands with Meath came to being removed after that defeat.
It is recalled in the article how, after the reversal, “people passing the dressing-room door in Tullamore, afterwards, called the players ‘old women’ and Boylan was ready to step away from the job. He felt he had done all he could.”
Six of Meath’s senior players — Mick Lyons, Padraig Lyons, Liam Hayes, Gerry McEntee, Joe Cassells, and Colm O’Rourke — called to Boylan’s house and implored him to stay on. It is said that during their cards-on-the-table discussion, Pádraig Lyons told Boylan (renowned as a gentleman with a light touch) to ‘put his shyness in his arse pocket’ and display more authority.
According to Boylan, it was a clear turning point in his management style, as he took on Lyons’ very personal challenge and ‘began to foster a different culture at team meetings — a circle of discussion, of honesty — and began to properly emphasise the importance of players taking individual responsibility for what they were part of, both for themselves and for the team’.
Laois, who bombed out in the ’85 Leinster final, after beating Meath, scoring just four points against Dublin, may have done Meath an inadvertent favour, because the Royals team that returned in 1986 pulled off a breakthrough provincial triumph. In 1987, they won the All-Ireland and retained it in 1988.
Yet it wasn’t just the players that Boylan had to front up to, after being licked by Laois at O’Connor Park in ’85. The county board weren’t convinced that he was the right man for the job and the memory of the 2-11 to 0-7 shellacking was high on their minds for months, as they considered whether or not to sack him.
Finian Murtagh, a current Meath selector, was a player in 1985 and recalled, in The Boylan Years book, how the mood darkened towards Boylan. “Laois hammered us,” Murtagh recalled.
I don’t know what went wrong that day. Laois were coming good; they had a decent enough team at the time. It was just one of those things; there was no second chance then. You were gone. There were great expectations, after winning the Centenary Cup and getting to a Leinster final in ’84.
"They wanted him (Sean) out. It was only canvassing by O’Rourke and Cassells and McEntee that kept him in. That was it. He was gone otherwise and things could have been so much different for Meath football.”
Meath trailed the National League champions by three points at half-time, 0-6 to 0-3, and were sunk by 51st and 52nd minute goals by Pascal Doran and Willie Brennan.
The Leinster Express reported at the time that “15 minutes from the end, Meath’s dumbfounded supporters were beginning to move to the exits”.
Aiden Crickley, another Meath player from that ’85 loss, admitted they were punished for not taking Laois seriously. “I think we might have been a little bit complacent and we just let them play football and they got two goals,” Crickley said in The Boylan Years.
“I was at fault for one of them, in the second half. I was marking Pascal Doran. I remember he went out and got the ball way ahead of me, turned and just waltzed past me, leaving me for dead, and he blasted it into the net. There was just a stunned silence in the dressing room afterwards. We went from hero to zero. Nobody played well that day.”
Boylan lived to fight another day and Meath supporters are mightily glad he did, but 1985 remains a cautionary tale. Now, 34 years on, Meath head into another Leinster semi-final against Laois, expected to win, and with the words of Laois manager, John Sugrue, ringing in their ears.
The Kerry man claimed, after Laois’s win over Westmeath, that his players “have to worry about the gulf between ourselves and Meath”. Meath’s players would be wise to disregard that remark, or they, and McEntee, could end up another footnote in a painful history with Laois.