Seán Moran: How compulsive Meath-Dublin saga changed GAA landscape

Widespread national appeal of televised live games became clearly evident in 1991

In the midst of all the rheumy-eyed reminiscence about Italia 90, it's easy to forget that it was supposed to represent an existential threat to the GAA – the rise of soccer here symbolised by Ireland taking its place among the nations of the world.

Not that Gaelic games put its best foot forward that summer but there was an apprehension that the world was changing and traditional pursuits might no longer prove as diverting.

As often happens, circumstances changed and pretty quickly. A year later and the GAA was transformed in one vital respect, the engagement of the country at large with the games.

There had always been more cautious and rational counsels about the impact of the 1990 World Cup. It had been grand at the time but the world of Gaelic games had been a bit too hardwired into Irish society simply to wither away.


So it proved. Rather than become marginalised by the international juggernaut of a globalised phenomenon like soccer, the GAA went and got its own hoopla and with it tapped into the event-driven enthusiasms of the people.

That might sound too much like the blacksmith in Breandán Ó hEithir’s ‘Begrudger’s Guide to Irish Politics’. The book’s introduction tells of a clergyman taking an early morning walk on the day that Saorstát Éireann was established.

He encounters a glum blacksmith, complaining that the likely flight of gentry will destroy his business. In reply, the clergyman tells him to cheer up because Ireland will have its own gentry.

“Father,” says the blacksmith, “we will in our arse have our own gentry.”

But it was true. Crowds, hungry for big sports events, realised that they were available every summer. Television began to twig that they could fill schedules with football and hurling matches and contentious pundits and there would be no obligation to qualify for international tournaments to allow it to happen.

The landmark in all of this was, strangely, a Leinster football championship preliminary round match.

Michael Delaney, now retired, in his days as Leinster Council secretary always had a broad outlook on how the GAA should function in a changing landscape. The first senior official to advocate the opening of Croke Park to other sports, he was also an early proponent of live television.

Speaking recently to this paper, he emphasised the challenge of the 1990 World Cup when that year's hurling double bill had its attendance halved on the previous 12 months despite a famous occasion, which saw the debuts of Brian Whelahan and DJ Carey and a massive win for Offaly against Kilkenny, as well as a surprise Dublin defeat of Wexford.

Insurance bond

“In Italia 90,” said Delaney, “we put on Leinster hurling semi-finals against a World Cup match and then another day we had a football semi-final and the only other thing on was the Irish team coming home but less than 10,000 turned up, as opposed to quarter of a million. People forget the influence soccer had on our gates at that time.

“I’ll never forget it because you used to have to come home in those days through Naas and I remember that evening, they were spilling out of pubs wearing Kilkenny and Offaly jerseys – they never made it to Croke Park.

“The outcome is that we took a financial hit and what saved us was the Dublin-Meath final at the end of July.”

The following year Leinster decided to have a completely open provincial football draw. Out of the hat for the preliminary round came Dublin and Meath, the very pairing that as a provincial final functioned as a kind of insurance bond.

“What we had now,” recalled Delaney in The Royal Battle documentary, made in 2006, “was them playing in a preliminary round game and I said the chairman – in the context that we had just bought new buildings for the Leinster Council – that we might have to talk to an auctioneer. We won’t be able to sustain this.”

What came to pass was extraordinary. Dublin had pumped some additional voltage into the box office by winning that year's league and were under the new, extrovert management of former goalkeeper Paddy Cullen.

They were better than Meath but never quite came to terms with that and neither did Meath. The counties had also drawn in a little-remembered league encounter at Croke Park the previous March, a match that left some blood in the water because Cullen’s team – ominously – should have won that as well.

The four-match tussle became an end in itself. Apart from the second match, Meath laboured but stayed afloat.

But the story of the four matches was to be one of Dublin’s draining self-confidence. Team selections became erratic as they searched for the right combination and every time they failed to beat Meath, the conviction that they were capable of doing so suffered further.

It may have started as the Homeric epic of "a local row," in the words of Patrick Kavanagh but by 6th July 1991 when the teams met for the fourth time in five summer weeks, everyone was watching.

Modern era

It was the first major fixture of the modern era to be staged on a Saturday afternoon and the first – outside of the All-Ireland series – to be televised live. Despite that, 61,543 were in attendance to see Meath’s late and this time decisive intervention.

Michael Delaney saw it as an opportunity grasped.

“The Irish people are sports-mad and they had nothing to tag onto in ’91. They were reaching out for something and Dublin-Meath got them into Gaelic football. We took in over the four games 1.1 million punts.

“We had never gone over a million pounds in a whole championship season before and here was a preliminary game that brought us 1.1, which meant at the end of that season we were over two million, which was uncharted waters for our council or any other council. I’m absolutely convinced that was the turning point in Gaelic games becoming the attraction they did.”

The third match took place 29 years ago this week and both it and the conclusive third replay can be seen on Wednesday night on eir sport Gold from 7.0 pm.