Border dispute with wee bit of history


KEITH DUGGANlooks back on the old rivalry between Meath and Louth, helped by the recollections of former player Kevin Beahan

MOST PEOPLE attending tomorrow’s Leinster final will be too young to remember why Louth and Meath teams are supposed to fight like alley cats. It is enough to know they do and that they have the opportunity to do so in a provincial final.

The history of the All-Ireland championships has many examples of teams that seem to disappear from the radar and Louth provide one of the most vivid examples. From All-Ireland champions in 1957 and Leinster finalists in 1968 to an unbroken run of one-match summers and near-misses and what-ifs.

Peter Fitzpatrick, the manager and a teak-tough corner back on 1990s Louth teams, wasn’t exaggerating when he declared this weekend, “the biggest thing that has happened to Louth in the last 50 years”.

But to get to the heart of the rivalry with Meath, you have to travel back to a deadlocked July in 1949 when it took three riveting matches to separate the sides. The first match on July 3rd finished at 1-5 each but the drama took off when they met again a week later and Louth initiated a marvellous comeback, trailing by a goal with full time approaching.

“The referee was looking at his watch for full-time when Lough again burst away and Seán Boyle forced a free which he landed over the area,” wrote Pat O in Monday morning’s The Irish Times. “Louth forwards tore in a body and rushed the ball to the net amid great excitement. The referee tried to clear the field in vain. He whistled for additional time, in accordance with the rules.

“The teams for the following Clann’s v St Vincent’s final were in parade behind the band at this stage and their referee was blowing his whistle. Back came the Louth-Meath referee to call the teams for extra-time. Meath appeared but Louth were missing when the teams for the Dublin Senior Championship final paraded.”

Former Louth midfielder Kevin Beahan was a schoolboy in the crowd that day but has no memory of the confusion. “No, I can’t recall the mechanics of it,” he says. “I just remember they were very hard, tough matches. It was unheard of then to take three matches to get through a round. I think there was just a point in it in the final analysis. But fair dues to Meath, they went and won it.

“There would have been a certain amount of begrudgery there. When people asked me what is was like playing against Meath, I’d always say: ‘Wait till I show you my legs!’ They are a tough breed of people. They are big and strong and they don’t take prisoners. And that is part and parcel of it. But it was intense during that time. Meath and Louth players wouldn’t talk to one another.”

From Ardee, Beahan was one of the best young footballers of his generation. He schooled in St Patrick’s of Armagh and played on the Louth minor team of 1951 whose failure to win the All-Ireland he blames on administrative chaos in Connacht.

“There was pandemonium – Mayo objecting to Galway and Leitrim objecting to Mayo. It was time to go back to school when they had it sorted and the whole momentum was gone. We lost the All-Ireland semi-final in a hayfield in Roscommon.”

But Meath and Louth was the dominant force in the imagination of all young Louth footballers then. Paddy Connell’s late point ended the 1949 saga with a Meath win which set up their first All-Ireland title against Cavan. But the following year, Louth turned the tables in the Leinster championship with a 3-5 to 0-13 win after Nicky Roe pointed a late free (The first match was a draw).

“There were hard knocks in abundance and the game was thoroughly clean, though the tackling was so hard on occasion that one wondered at the rareness of casualties,” Pat O wrote. “Even the French team of boxers beside the Press seats in the Cusack Stand were highly enthused.”

Beahan is convinced Louth would have won the 1950 All-Ireland but for the non-intervention of Cavan referee Simon Deignan, who failed to whistle after Mick Flanagan seemed to over-run the ball on the way to Mayo’s decisive goal. Deignan, a star on Cavan’s fabled ’47 team, admitted later to Mick Mulderrig of Mayo that when he went to reach for the whistle, it was jammed between his shorts and his jersey. “We heard that all right around Louth. But I won’t tell you what people would have done with the whistle if they had got hold of Deignan at that time,” laughs Beahan.

In 1951, Louth met Meath in the Leinster semi-final, they drew on six points each and in the replay, Meath won by a point. Flash forward a summer and the counties met in the 1952 Leinster final where Meath won 1-6 to 0-8.

By now, Beahan and Seán Cunningham were emerging as the pick of the talented young Louth team and both played in the ’53 side that won the Leinster crown and went on give Kerry a rousing match in the All-Ireland semi-final. Dermot O’Brien, then starting out with Louth, told the late Jack Mahon about his experience of playing Kerry in Mahon’s book, A History of Gaelic Football. “I was young and light then and the occasion was too big for me – facing the might of Kerry in your first All-Ireland semi-final. During the second half I was moved into left corner forward to face Kerry’s captain, Jas Murphy – a huge man. Whatever chance I had of improving my game vanished when he gripped my hand and said, ‘How are you, poor creatur?’ Shortly after that, I was replaced.”

But Louth’s time was coming. The Louth-Meath antipathy was fizzing all along the border. It was said Mass cards were sent across the border to the Louth players prior to some of the matches at that time, an act of mischief that would have been considered deeply sacrilegious at the time.

It may or may not have been a coincidence in Louth’s perfect year, Meath did not appear on their horizon. They disposed of Carlow, Wexford, Kildare and Dublin in winning the Leinster championship, comfortably beat Tyrone in the semi-final and then met Cork in the All-Ireland final.

“Beahan was the outstanding figure of Louth’s second-half brilliance and he was the key man in a forward team which produced the best football of the hour – rapid acceleration and delightful placing of passes. They fitted in like a refined mosaic pattern and came from behind in a heart-thrilling finish. That late session of football earned them the title,” Pat O reported.

When Beahan thinks about that 1957 team, he believes a number of factors enabled them to break new ground. “They were compact, they played for one another and they had a cohesive forward line. They had a great place-kicker in Jim Roe. There was a spirit about us. We had scoring forwards and that makes an awful difference. When we played our last Leinster final in 1960, we didn’t have as much scoring power. And I often think fellas that win an All-Ireland are not the same fellas that are trying to win an All-Ireland.”

Louth lost that provincial final in 1960 to Offaly and that has been it. What happened? In the following decades, Meath and Louth football fortunes spun in such radically different directions the idea of a rivalry seemed somewhat fanciful. Meath won 12 Leinster titles and six All-Irelands through the decades since.

Louth’s successes were small and seldom. In 1975, they did strike back with something of the old venom when they knocked Meath, who had just won the league title, out of the Leinster championship. Pleasing as that win was, it could not kick-start a new period of Louth supremacy and Meath served up revenge on more than one occasion.

In 1998, they resisted a strong Louth rally with points from Stefan White and Colin Kelly to hold out for a 0-15 to 1-11 win.

In 2002 Louth were four points up after normal time in Navan when Meath hit them with two goals. The winner came courtesy of Graham Geraghty, who had flown up by helicopter from a wedding where he was best man.

In 2006, under Eamon McEneaney, Louth kicked 10 points in the first half of the Leinster championship first round but failed to score in the second half. “We lost,” McEneaney said afterwards. “I can’t explain that right now.”

The work McEneaney did during his period in charge has been rightly acknowledged as a contributory factor in Louth’s return to prominence this summer. It has been a long wait. Beahan says: “I used to say Louth people thought football began at the Boyne and ended at the Cooley mountains. We didn’t look further afield. We used to give advice to Armagh and Tyrone and counties like that and now it has come full circle.

“But we had a few near misses in the last few years as well. We weren’t always lucky.”

Luck has had little to do with the emergence of Louth this summer. They are back on merit.

It stands to reason that Meath should be waiting for them.