I was in Croke Park today for the first time since All-Ireland final day last year. This afternoon’s visit was a family one, as I had my three little Dubs in tow and we met up in the Lower Davin with De Brudder who was also accompanied by his trio of Jackeens.
Needless to say, we were there to see the Dubs as they made their Championship bow under Pat Gilroy’s stewardship and, as you’ll know by now, it was a winning opener with the Boys in Blue prevailing by two points over Meath.
Like most people born outside the Pale, I’ve never had any great love for the Dubs down the years. As the kids have begun to become aware of where they’re from, however, I’ve had to soften my position somewhat in recent times and, of course, with the St Vincent’s takeover on the sideline, it’s now the case that any triumph that the Dubs might achieve would be a very local one for all of us in this part of Dublin’s Northside. And it goes without saying that, aside from my principal hope of seeing our lads do the business, I’d far sooner see the Dubs do well than I would to see a continuation of the current Ulster-Munster duopoly.
So, we were all Dubs for the day today but what we saw at Croke Park was a poor enough match between these two great rivals in the world of Gaelic football. Today’s dull and rather tame fare compared poorly to the many classic clashes of yore between the two counties but it also contrasted badly with what you see these days up North or down South. (Sadly, those of us from the West are in no position to get in any way snooty about football standards elsewhere at the moment).
Dublin started well and went three points up but they then went to sleep as Meath scored five points in a row before they woke up and shot eight without reply to lead by six at the break. Meath threatened to reel them in a few times in the second half but Dublin – who only managed three points after the interval – succeeded in doing enough to squeeze home by two points.
Meath were very poor and it’s somewhat of a surprise that they were, given that they had quality players like Anthony Moyles, Nigel Crawford, Brian Farrell, Stephen Bray and Cian Ward in their ranks. Hang on: maybe it’s not so much of a surprise after all as, aside from that quintet, Meath hadn’t too many other impressive performers on show. They gave Dublin far too much room all over the pitch for most of the day and had Dublin even a rough idea where the posts were, they would have been beaten by a much wider margin than two points.
It’s truly amazing to see how far Meath have fallen over the course of this decade. You wouldn’t give them too much of a chance now of beating the living shite out of Kerry in an All-Ireland semi-final – a feat they so memorably achieved as recently as 2001 – and there’s no way you’d expect to see them back again challenging for Sam itself anytime soon. For a county with such a proud record in recent times – which included two All-Irelands in the Nineties (I know, I know: one of those should have been ours but they did enough to nick it from us in ‘96, the hoors) – their lowly standing now is a cautionary tale for those of us who think (like we all used to do about house prices) that the only way is up.
Dublin have achieved far less than the Royals have at All-Ireland level in recent times, a relative failing that has been masked somewhat by (a) their ongoing dominance in Leinster and (b) the fawning attention they’ve tended to get in the “national” media. With Kildare now looking to be the only real challenge facing them in Leinster this year, you’d have to make them racing certainties to clinch a fifth Leinster title on the trot. But, as ever, the issue for the Dubs will be how they fare once the All-Ireland quarter-finals come around.
Pat Gilroy’s decision to field against Meath today only seven of the side that started last August against Tyrone showed that he knew major changes were needed if the Dubs are going to start punching their weight again at All-Ireland level. On today’s evidence, though, the new-look Dubs don’t seem any great improvement on last year’s model and the second half reappearance of Whelo and Jayo – at a point in the game where Meath were seriously considering a comeback – tells its own story. Set against that, however, is the fact that Dublin did succeed in winning today and so, if they get their act together at all over the coming weeks, they’re almost certain to feature once again in the All-Ireland series.
At a personal level, it was an enjoyable day out: the kids had good fun getting all Dubbed up for the occasion and they saw their team win at a fairly packed Croke Park so they went home happy enough. It’s the first time they’ve seen the Dubs play in the Championship (they saw our lads last year and hopefully will do so again at some point this year) and it’s always good to leave Croke Park having seen your team win. How many more times they’ll get to experience this feeling over the course of the summer (whatever colours they’re wearing) remains an open question but, then again, that’s the allure of the Championship, isn’t it?