Thirty-one years ago, the GAA was saved by Meath and Dublin.
The journey of Jackie’s Army at Italia ‘90 fever had made an indelible impact on people of all ages, as association football grabbed the hearts and minds of a nation.
Gaelic football and hurling were on the back-foot, that is until a four-game saga between the Dubs and the Royals in 1991 reignited a collective flame for our indigenous games.
This was an era of knockout championship, when any loss ended your season entirely. Meath had won All-Ireland titles in 1987 and 1988, but had been beaten in the final by Cork in 1990.
The Dubs, for their part, were looking to bridge the gap to 1983. Neither side wanted to give an inch to their neighbour, and so the country was treated to a gripping adventure between June 2 and July 6 1991.
Incredibly, this epic was just a preliminary quarter-final match, so the winner would have to win three further games to claim a Leinster title, and two more to lift the big one: the Sam Maguire Cup.
After 320 minutes of drama played in front of a cumulative attendance of more than 235,000 supporters, not to mention many multiples of that on TV, Meath’s David Beggy finally kicked a decisive score right at the death.
All of a sudden, memories of Toto Schillaci and the Olympic Stadium were no longer quite so vivid.
Fast-forward to 2022, and we have a rivalry that can scarcely even be called that. The TV stations have sent their cameras elsewhere, with the general consensus being that Dublin will win by as much as they want.
Perhaps the 2019 Leinster final was the nadir of this feud, with Meath putting up a paltry four points against the Dubs’ 1-17. By the end of that season, Jim Gavin’s men had completed five in a row, and a new low was visited upon the Royals’ faithful.
That came when Ashbourne Credit Union — in Meath — posted a message online congratulating one of their employees — a Dublin footballer — with the following: “Sam is coming home to Dublin again… well done our very own Dean Rock”.
Then-Meath joint-captain Bryan Mention expressed his frustration in an Instagram post: “Embarrassing and insulting to genuine Meath people from Ashbourne. Support where you’re from as an individual, but for a business to post what they’re posting on social media, you should be ashamed of yourselves.”
What it pointed to was an identity crisis within Meath, a county which is part of the commuter belt to Dublin — by some distance the biggest urban centre on the island.
One of the heroes of 1991, Bernard Flynn, explained the situation to me just a few months after the incident in 2019: “Bryan Menton is a really humble, down-to-earth, class guy — he was livid. He lives in Ashbourne, I think it’s an awful thing.
“It’s horrendously embarrassing for everyone involved. Ashbourne has a huge amount of Dubs living there — it’s full of Dubs with all due respect.
“100 per cent,” he adds of it being an identity crisis in Meath. “Go into Navan, it’s the same thing.
“It’s a huge thing for us, it really is a big problem. Trim, a lot of Dubs moving down there, Dunshaughlin, Ratoath. Dunshaughlin is full of… it’s nearly Dublin, that’s the problem we have.
“The schools and the whole lot. They’re looking at their heroes in Dublin, they’re living in Meath, so there’s an identity crisis — there’s no doubt, in a lot of the clubs, and in those big populated areas with the schools. It’s a big challenge to change that.
“We have to try to make our own mark, have our own heroes.”
Meath last beat Dublin in the 2010 Leinster championship, and former Dublin star Cian O’Sullivan this week explained how much the rivalry has waned in the intervening years.
The counties have met seven times since then, with Dublin winning every clash by an average of 12 points.
With Con O’Callaghan back from injury and in fine form during the routine win over Wexford, the omens point to another comfortable win for the Dubs.
However, Meath ran the old enemy close in last year’s provincial final, and were just three points in arrears heading into the latter stages before Dublin won by six.
Dessie Farrell — who took over from Gavin — had a tough league campaign which ultimately ended in relegation, though the Royals too showed indifferent form during their run in the second tier.
O’Sullivan feels that “it’s going to take a close encounter in a Leinster game to really ignite” the rivalry, and perhaps that also extends to Royal hopes of winning the hearts of the next generation on their own turf.