Meath hope to restore Royal County football lineage
By John Harrington
For those who saw them in their pomp, time has done little to dim the memories of the great Meath football teams of the 1980s and 1990s.
Players like Colm O’Rourke, Mick Lyons, Liam Harnan, David Beggy, Bernard Flynn, John McDermott, and Graham Geraghty weren’t just fine footballers, they were also powerful personalities who really captured the public’s imagination.
But as iconic as those Meath teams were, the harsh truth is that they now belong to a different era of the game.
A whole generation of Meath supporters have grown up without knowing anything like the success that once made the Royal County one of the great traditional powers of the game.
It’s 19 years since the County last won a senior All-Ireland title, and in the same period of time they’ve won just two Leinster Senior Championships.
Perhaps it’s no surprise that they’re no longer genuine contenders in the senior grade considering it’s 26 years since they won an All-Ireland Minor title and ten years since they won a provincial championship in the grade.
Their record in the U-21 grade isn’t much better – it’s 25 years since they last won the All-Ireland title and 17 since they were last Leinster champions.
The plain truth is that they’ve fallen far behind counties like Dublin, Kerry, Tyrone, and Mayo for the best part of two decades, but now it looks like there’s a serious will within the county to make up that lost ground.
Helped in a large part by significant funding from the Leinster Council’s ‘East Leinster Project’, Meath GAA have completely overhauled their underage coaching structures.
In the space of a year their coaching and games development staff has jumped from seven to 17, and already the impact of those much greater resources is being felt in schools and clubs across the county.
Former Meath footballer, Jamie Queeney, is the county’s Games Development Manager and tasked with overseeing the work of the new staff and implementing the county’s coaching strategy.
He’s hugely enthused by what he views as a very important step in the right direction, but he’s realistic enough to know too that this is a long-term project rather than something that will turn around Meath’s fortunes at senior inter-county level in the short-term.
“Tradition is important but we've relied on it for too long,” Queeney told GAA.ie “This idea that we're Meath and we have a great tradition and we have an entitlement to win competitions.
“But it's not like that. Because other counties have moved on away from that and there are people with new ideas constantly. I hope that's what we're doing as well and that we're going to get the benefit then in a few years.
“I'm not an idiot, I can see the challenges that are ahead of us but I can also see the possibilities that we have.
“I know there will be good positive vibes and lots of good things coming around the corner and that's exciting for me.
“It's not going to happen next year or the year after, it’s going to take a few years.”
When Queeney first started out as a Games Development Manager in 2012 there were only two full-time and one part-time Games Promotion officers within the county.
Back then each GPO had around 16 clubs each to service which meant they were spread far too thin, but now the ratio is down to five or six clubs per GPO.
That means far more schools and clubs are now benefiting from much more regular contact from those GPOs, who now have the time to put a concerted effort into coaching club coaches as well as nurturing the talents of up and coming young footballers and hurlers.
Dublin’s pre-eminence as a football force in this decade has been largely built on a superb underage coaching structure that benefited massively from sustained investment. The hope in Meath would be that they will also reap significant reward for doing something similar.
“Look it, it's a numbers game,” said Queenan. “The more players you have the more the clubs will bring through from minor up to U-20, up to senior.
“That's obviously then going to have a knock-on effect for our senior inter-county team.
“I'm under no illusion, and I'm sure no-one else is, but that this is a long-term project. I'd imagine Dublin's project took 10-years plus before it had an impact on their seniors.
“People talk about Dublin and the great success they've had in the last few years and it has been great, but they were very unpredictable for the previous 20 years.
“It's not something you can take your eye off the ball. We know this will take 10 years before we probably see the rewards of it.
“I’m fortunate to have great people around me. The likes of Sean Kelly who is our football development officer in the county and a Master Tutor.
“Sean is a great help and he's a top coach and was a former inter-county player as well. Seamus Kenny is there as the operations manager and has massive credentials as well.
“We've got great people there and the right structures in place, so we're hoping that if we can carry it on that will reap rewards in the future.”
Looking in from the outside, it’s clear that Meath as a football county has massive potential.
Tradition alone doesn’t guarantee success, but it can be a very important ingredient if you get everything else right around it.
They also have the sheer weight of numbers to re-establish themselves as a Gaelic Football power-house if they could only unlock all that potential. The county’s population has almost doubled in the space of 25 years and now stands at just under 200,000.
This population explosion has also brought its own challenges, though. It’s largely been driven by an influx of Dublin natives into the south of the county, and the assimilation of those new families into the Meath GAA scene hasn’t always been seamless.
“What we found with the clubs along the border like Ratoath, Ashbourne, and even my own club Enfield is that there's a lot of people from Dublin that have moved out to those areas in the last 10 or 15 years and are still moving out,” said Queeney.
“The challenge for us was to create that link with them and try to link the likes of Ratoath with those families who are coming from Dublin and might have previously been involved with a Dublin GAA club like Kilmacud and found it hard to detach from that.
“We're trying to create that link and it's all done in the schools. The GPOs are going into the school and being a constant presence so the kids are going home and saying, ‘Eoin was in the school today, he was saying I was a great footballer so I might go down to underage training in the local club and get involved’.
“That's the sort of link we're trying to create. To create a link between the club and the school and all the families in the area as well.”
Queeney can see on the ground that they’re now starting to have a lot more success in that regard.
The numbers of children being brought through club underage structures, particularly in urban areas, is rising rapidly, and going forward they should now be benefiting from better and better coaching.
This is very positive for the long-term health of Gaelic Football in the county, and even now at the present moment there are some very promising green shoots emerging at the elite level of the game.
Meath were crowned the inaugural Leinster U-17 football champions last year, and Queeney is really enthused by the calibre of young footballer they’re starting to produce in the county.
“I'm very satisfied with what's happening,” he said. “Even I can see in our academies, we bring massive numbers through.
“We don't generally run them as elite sorts of teams, we just try to get as many players through the system as we can.
“So you can definitely see the quality of player that comes in has improved from three or four years ago. That's down to the work in the clubs.
“That's guys just taking the bit between their teeth and saying we need to do something. Our U-17s were successful last year and you'd hope that will continue in the next few years.
“We need a bit of success at U-17 and U-20 in the next few years and then people will be begin to talk about Meath again, that their underage is coming good.
“I believe a lot of it is the media talking about you. If the media is talking about you and saying that Meath are back and doing this and that, then other teams will start to take note and that will give you confidence as well.
“I'm hugely excited about the challenge ahead and I think Meath people should be as well.
“But, look, it's not going to happen itself either. We have to keep grinding at it and not take the eye off the ball.”