By Royal appointment: Andy McEntee trying to reverse Meath’s slide into obscurity
Manager McEntee provides a link to Meath football’s good old days
Andy McEntee: “We have 40 guys in there working really hard and another 10 we had to let go. They are really trying.”
The green and gold jersey was like a second skin.
-Liam Hayes, Out Of Our Skins anniversary edition (2010).
‘Meath people are just dying for a team to go out and show all that,” promises Andy McEntee, invoking the time when the Royal county was all shadow and flame with the sense of invincibility that came with following their football team. Meath: once, the very word meant dark majesty. Something slipped. They all know it now. Something got lost.
He is as progressive as any rational GAA man can be but deep down he knows that part of his job of as Meath manager is about restoration. The big house fell into decline without any of them noticing until it was too late. Meath are second favourites to win the Leinster championship this summer but they are a distant second to Dublin. Nobody believes they can beat the city any more. As for the All-Ireland championship, they belong in the realm of romantic outsiders.
How did that happen to a county football tradition that traded in anti-romance? When did Meath become just another football team? McEntee rifles through a precise catalogue of memories and experiences in sharing his view.
He could tell you all about those nights when he was trying to break into what was, for a period, comfortably the best football team in Ireland. We are talking the second half of the 1980s here: The Joshua Tree Ireland. Meath were literally a band of brothers. You’ll recognise the surnames still. The Lyons brothers would roll up. The Coyle brothers were there. The two Foleys. The two Fergusons.
And the two McEntees. Gerry, now standing alongside Andy as a selector, was the older and one of the central figures on Meath’s back-to-back All-Ireland teams of 1987 and 1988. Andy was the younger one who, like Barry Ferguson and Pauric Coyle, was scrapping as hard as he could for breathing space. They were a teak-tough, ambitious, unsentimental group and locked into a fascinatingly austere battle with Cork for national supremacy. Seán Boylan moved among them all with his potions and whispered incantations and mysterious ability to harness whatever fury made them win those games.
You couldn’t go out and beat the shite out of someone on Sunday and then expect to dig in with him a week later
Andy is up front. He will tell you that he never made it. Whether he didn’t get his chance or wasn’t quite good enough is immaterial. It didn’t happen the way he would have wished. Some nights, he would sit in the car on the way home to Nobber knowing he had shown plenty at training. But it wasn’t enough to get a championship call. His brother Gerry, who somehow combined an exceptional life in medicine with glittering football achievement, would say whatever he could.
“Gerry is a straight talker. He’d say: ‘Look it, you have to accept it is their right to pick who they see it. You have to knuckle down and change their mind’. He might have felt a little bit sorry for me but he had to look after his own game too.”
That’s the bottom line. They were self-absorbed and driven and had to mind their own patch. The dark lands of Meath club football held the true explanations of what the game meant in the county in those years. Skryne, Walterstown and Summerhill vied annually then. Skryne had Liam Hayes, Colm O’Rourke and Tyrone midfielder Kevin McCabe on its books. And yet they couldn’t win a county championship. That’s how strong and unyielding the local competition was.
“Nearly unhealthy I’d say. That was one of the things Seán tried to change to a certain extent. He definitely changed the idea that you couldn’t go out and beat the shite out of someone on Sunday and then expect to dig in with him a week later.”
But it was edgy, all the time. Because Andy was younger than that main group, he was able to observe them from close quarters. He was only a kid by the time he qualified as a veteran supporter of grim Leinster championship days when they lost first round games to Wexford, to Longford. “Guys like O’Rourke . . . Joe Cassells . . . I’d seen them go through pretty devastating defeats. And I’d say a lot of that mental toughness they developed came from years of losing.”
He was there, too, on that sodden day in 1986 when Meath turned up for a Leinster final against Dublin and somehow didn’t lose. Something alchemised on that unlovely afternoon. They learned some truth about themselves and held on to it with ferocity.
So they won those two All-Ireland finals and lost the next two to Cork and if they assaulted the sensibilities of Sunday afternoon Ireland family time in the process, well, tough shit. After the drawn final in 1988, Boylan took the squad away to Ballymacscanlon to think about things. They played an in-house game which, McEntee recalls, was about as raw as they ever got.
If we were deemed to be the bullies, then we would be the bullies
“It is interesting. That Meath team was not particularly popular. I am looking at Enda Kenny at the moment: now that he is going, everyone says he is a great guy. It was a bit like that with Meath. Later, people admitted they admired elements of that team. You had strong personalities in every line. What provoked that response was going into the final there was a lot of talk about how physical Meath were. How dirty we were. And I’d say that affected our performance on the first day. I think everyone would admit that Cork were more physical and to a certain extent bullied us. So it was decided shortly after that that if we were deemed to be the bullies, then we would be the bullies.”
He believes he was going very well around then. He was nominally a half-forward but Boylan had him at wing-back at training. And he felt close. The call never came. Meath won the All-Ireland. Again. The following autumn, he wasn’t recalled for training. That’s how it went. In and out, over the years. Howya Andy. There and not there. Boylan empathetic and firm. “Seán expected you to be disappointed. But he expected you to get on with it too.”
So Andy McEntee can give you a tour of those roaring years. But he can talk to you about other sides of Meath football too. The family had a wedding a few weekends ago. One of the duties of all the siblings was to fire off photographs to Madge, the matriarch, so she could organise them on her iPad. She turned 89 recently and is still sharp as ever. Her side of the family – O’Briens and Dillons are steeped in GAA – but once her sons became involved, she found herself increasingly nervous watching games. In recent years, she likes to move in and out of the television room to keep an eye on things. When Ballyboden, whom McEntee managed to the club All-Ireland title in 2016, played Clonmel in the All-Ireland semi-final, she happened to be in the room when her son’s team had a late free.
“We hadn’t been playing well,” Andy laughs. “And Conal Keaney had a 21-yard free to leave us just a point behind with 10 minutes left. But he mishit it and kind of lobbed it into the goalkeeper’s hands. My mother had been coming in and out of the kitchen and she happened to be in sitting down when this free was taken. Now, my mother is not a woman that uses language at all. But when she saw this, she stood up and she said: ‘Well fuck you anyway, Keaney’.”
He brought his mum to the medal presentation. He introduced her to Conal Keaney. Forgiveness was extended. He loves the story because it ties in with that thing that matters about the GAA: of losing yourself in the wonder of it.
All of Meath was swimming in that feeling when he was growing up. Mary was the only girl in a household with seven brothers. Once, the McEntee boys won a five-a-side brothers tournament. Nobber went from junior to senior without ever winning a championship and participated in north Meath tournaments which carried a grave, unfathomable importance. There was an unspoken rule in Nobber: you didn’t take holidays in the football season. Andy McEntee kept playing football until he was 42-years-old, transferring to Dunboyne after he moved there in 1989. “Caught up in my own bubble.”
Then he managed Ashbourne and took the Meath minors to an All-Ireland final in 2012. A few years after that, he threw his energies into Ballyboden. He somehow managed to complete a masters degree in sports management around the time they were preparing for the All-Ireland final. He and his wife have three children and he has worked for Davy Stockbrokers for over 20 years.
So life was quick, good, busy and he didn’t really notice Meath’s slow slide from prominence until it was glaringly obvious to everyone. And then, in the midst of that time, on an entirely different scale of importance, the McEntee family and Nobber community in general went through the harrowing experience of losing Shane McEntee, a TD and junior minister, a father, son and brother, to suicide during Christmas of 2012. He was 56-years-old.
“We miss him hugely,” Andy says quietly. “Shane’s death . . . I mean, it changed everybody’s lives forever. It has a huge impact on us. He was a Meath fanatic. Awh! He would have played with Nobber and then managed loads of teams. Loads of rural teams and was hugely successful with small clubs because of his obsession and passion and I guess his way with people . . . he was that sort of a guy. And we miss him hugely. Especially when it comes to big occasions.”
And although his voice falters here, Andy is happier to talk about this than not. His brother had this magical everyman way with people and he dived into the political challenges of his role. By 2012, every constituency in Ireland had come through a sustained emotional and economic battering. Like many public servants, Shane McEntee was one of those on the frontline.
You don’t realise it until it comes knocking on your door
“Too much so, I would say. It is probably why he was so successful with the small clubs: he just appealed to everybody and he just poured everything into what he was doing. You got what you saw. You got everything he had. And I think that . . . he couldn’t handle it. He couldn’t handle ultimately . . . the emotions, I would say. So it had a huge impact on all of us. Talking about it . . . definitely helps. It doesn’t make it easier.
“It helps people to talk about it and you just never know where people are and what is going on in the background. And then there are so many families that have been affected by this. And it is something we have to be very aware of with the current group of players. We need to look after them because they are under huge pressure. We are very fortunate in Meath to have Gerry Cooney, who is a counsellor in the Rutland centre, involved with us.
“There is always a reason for a fella not playing well. There is always something going on in the background. And it is nice that they feel that they can come and talk to you about it. And you don’t realise it until it comes knocking on your door. And then you start talking to people and you hear their stories. We are lucky in our family in that we are a big unit with a lot of grandchildren. I’d say we are as close as we as ever been. I would say it does bring people a bit closer.”
The McEntees rallied after the tragedy. Shane’s daughter Helen ran in the byelection and became the second youngest TD in the sitting Dáil. They miss him every day and continue to do their best.
For Andy and Gerry McEntee, that has meant shaping their family and professional lives around Meath in a way they haven’t done since they were turning out for training. It’s a big task. Most of the current players were just children when Meath won its last All-Ireland in 1999. Meath’s football energy has moved from its big market towns north to the suburban strongholds. The old myth of big-boned farmers summer-lighting as Croke Park heroes doesn’t ring true now.
“It’s to do with the social fabric too,” he says. “How many farmers are even playing anymore? I applied for this job in 2008 for the first time. It was then I realised that things were in a bit of a crisis. Physically, Meath weren’t preparing the same way as other teams. Everyone else had stolen a march. I realised we weren’t doing the work. And the proposal I put to the county board in 2008 was the exact same as I put to them last year. It was seen as revolutionary at the time. But it’s where we are at now.”
One of his provisos last autumn was that Meath secure the services of John Coghlan, the strength coach and conditioning coach whom he persuaded to swap China for Meath. Coghlan had been working with Shandong Province track and field team and China’s sprinters, was previously with McEntee’s Meath minors, and had also worked on a programme for Ballyboden while in China last year.
The team missed out on promotion to Division One by a single point this year. People have assured McEntee that it’s fine: that they are as wise building from the second tier. “Bollocks to that,” he laughs. “Next year mightn’t happen either. I think it would have been a huge boost. But we didn’t play well enough in some of the games and we paid the price. But the support from everyone has been fantastic. We have 40 guys in there working really hard and another 10 we had to let go. They are really trying.”
He promises no miracles, no second coming of Mick Lyons or Liam Harnan or Brian Stafford. Carve their likeness into the Hill of Tara. It’s up to Meath to produce new names. But if the McEntee brothers can conjure up something of the old fire, then it will be a beginning. He worries about it. Not just Meath but the whole big charade. He is as outspoken as they come on the need to reform the All-Ireland championship before it loses relevance.
“I would argue that the best contest is the All-Ireland club because there are 20 teams that could win it. The All-Ireland does not have that. I think things move on. Apart from the teams who are involved, who gives a shit? Unfortunately, it seems to me, it is all financially driven. Look at the number of games played. And it takes, what, four months? Why do people love the league? It’s because it builds momentum. Imagine if you said next week is championship week. Everybody is playing. You have at least three games every second week. That would generate a buzz. Now, it would mean taking a risk. It would mean someone having the balls to say: let’s give this a go for two years and see if it works.”
But for now, Meath are his cause. “There are loads of nights when you don’t effin’ sleep,” he says cheerfully.
Persistence is part of it. He learned that decades ago. See, if you dig deep enough into Meath football soil, you arrive at that moment where they retaliated against a feeling of desperation: that something had to change.
“If you hang around long enough those dark days would probably inspire you to make sure they don’t happen again,” he says. “And you have enough bad days it makes you appreciate the good days a lot more.”
So here he is, then, a survivor of the Royals’ epic, warring days. He’s waited for this. Andy McEntee will tell anyone straight up that he never fully made it in the Meath dressing-room. That may be. Equally, it could be said that he never fully left.