Al Pacino famously declared that life, like football, is a game of inches. Meath face Louth in the Leinster Championship this weekend, six years on from the infamous 2010 Leinster final, which Meath won in controversial fashion. David Smith (Meath) and Ronan Mullen (Louth) were both at that game, and today they reflect on their contrasting emotions…
It’s a game I’ll never forget.
I was 17, and my parents collected a friend and me from the Gaeltacht en route to Croke Park. Clad in our Meath jerseys, our expectations were high after watching Meath demolish Dublin in the semi-final.
I remember the feeling of despair as I watched the clock trickle down, with Louth leading 1-10 to 12 points, and being far from confident that Meath had a goal in them.
I was standing on the Hill with a large group of friends and then girlfriend, and so our view of the now infamous incident was impaired.
It all happened in a blur.
I remember the ball dropping to Seamus Kenny six yards out and thinking he couldn’t miss, but Louth captain Paddy Keenan produced a phenomenal block to deny him.
It was hard to distinguish the ball in the frenzy that followed.
We celebrated wildly as we saw Joe Sheridan and the other Meath players reel away from in jubilation, punching the air victoriously. Hearts pounding, we waited impatiently as the referee conversed with the umpires.
The green flag was raised and all hell broke loose.
One minute we were jumping around wildly on the hill, the next we were pouring through the gate onto the pitch. I remember my girlfriend berating me for breaking her sunglasses in my excitement!
Much had been made of the GAA’s continual reiterations that no supporters would be allowed on to the pitch on the day, but there was no dam that could have stemmed the flood of Meath supporters who burst on to the pitch at the glorious sound of the final whistle.
It was only later that we learned of the controversial nature of Big Joe’s last gasp goal, and while it did tar the victory somewhat, that game remains one of my fondest sporting memories.
My friend and I returned to the Gaeltacht in Rathcairn that night, wearing silly grins and our Meath jerseys, and we were greeted by a celebratory roar as we entered the hall.
Regrettable scenes abounded after the game as a slew of Louth fans invaded the pitch to angle their ire at referee Martin Sludden, harrying the official as he made for the touchline.
The main source of said regret, of course, was that they didn’t hit him hard enough.
Louth manager Peter Fitzpatrick equated the Tyrone man’s outing at GAA HQ on July 12th to those of famed thief, Dick Turpin. A harsh enough comparison, in retrospect. After all, at least when Turpin committed highway robbery he had the decency to wear a mask.
To suggest Louth were blameless for the loss would be remiss, of course. A string of missed chances from the boots of Brian White and Shane Lennon inexplicably left Meath just one point shy of parity before the clock went red.
As Graham Reilly arrowed that fateful hail mary toward the Canal End during the dying embers, part of me was already resigned to a return outing six days later. A replay was hardly the worst result all things considered; most of us in red and white had made the Jones’ Road trek in hope rather than expectation, after all.
The notion of settling for a draw now seemed a grievously bitter bill given the balance of play, however, but what followed was altogether more unfathomable.
As Seamus Kenny soared like a Simonstown salmon to seize the ball from the July sky it seemed the jig was up. With Louth keeper Neil Gallagher strewn in the wreckage of Reilly’s lofted bomb, Kenny had the goal at his mercy.
What he hadn’t accounted for, though, was Louth skipper Paddy Keenan treating Croke Park’s captive audience to his finest Jason Statham impression, diving across the square to take the proverbial bullet for his side. As fate would have it, those superhuman efforts would ultimately prove to be in vain, Louth pair Andy McDonnell and Dessie Finnegan somehow contriving to fumble the resultant loose ball.
In a development which now lives in infamy, Meath’s Joe Sheridan popped up to punctuate the afternoon’s events where the Louth pair couldn’t, dotting down the finest try scored on Dublin’s hallowed turf since fellow Royal Shane Horgan stuck it to the English three years earlier.
I was ensconced in the bedlam of Hill 16 for the latter, an experience which few sporting events before or since have matched in terms of sheer out-of-body elation. Sadly, I was afforded a similarly prime vantage point for the Sheridan/Sludden double-act, gaping in bewilderment from the lower reaches of the Cusack Stand as my county was robbed of its first meaningful silverware since God was a gasson.
The subsequent acrimony which enveloped GAA’s top brass in the days that followed crescendoed in calls for a replay, calls which ultimately fell on deaf ears.
Lessons have been learned, it seems, Antrim’s hurlers successfully railing against a similar injustice of officiating in last weekend’s Christ Ring Cup final. June 25th will be herald their second bite at Meath’s cherry.
Louth belatedly get theirs today, but given that the cherry this time around is a date with Dublin later this month, they could be forgiven if they’ve lost their appetite.