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Fay: ‘Meath football started showing an arrogance and it’s never recovered from it’

In an extract from a new book, legendary Meath defender Darren Fay on the falllout from their 2001 semi-final thrashing of Kerry and final defeat to Galway.

Dara Ó Cinnéide of Kerry tackles Darren Fay of Meath.
Dara Ó Cinnéide of Kerry tackles Darren Fay of Meath.
Image: INPHO/Andrew Paton

Croke Park, Sunday, September 2, 2001

THE ALL-IRELAND semi-final against Kerry stunned the world of football. The scoreline says it all: Meath 2-14 Kerry 0-5.

No Kerry player scored more than a single point. And all the Kerry stars were there; Seamus Moynihan at full-back, Darragh Ó Sé at midfield, Dara Ó Cinnéide at full-forward. By the time Maurice Fitzgerald came on as a substitute before half time, Kerry were taking on water, trailing 1-6 to 0-4 at the break.

‘The first half was tight enough”, recalls Darren Fay. “It was nip and tuck. The balls were coming in and it was end-to-end stuff.”

Seven unanswered points in the third quarter from Meath amounted to a wipeout. And it continued in a similar vein right ’til the end.

“We were so focused for that game”, says Fay. “If we were honest about it, there was discontent in the Kerry camp. Wasn’t Maurice Fitzgerald unhappy with Páidí Ó Sé? Because Maurice didn’t start. They had come through against Dublin, when he got the famous point from the sideline kick but there seemed to be problems.

“I marked him in the National League quarter-final down in Limerick in ’99. I was looking forward to it because he was a top forward at the time. I definitely had the speed on him, but the speed didn’t matter.

“It was amazing how he was able to move for a ball. He was just gone in his own head a second quicker than anyone else more than his legs. His reading of the game was special.”

Dara Ó Cinnéide was another Kerry opponent for whom he had the greatest of respect.

“We used to play Kerry in challenge matches and even down in Thurles that time with all the goals [2000 National League semi-final], I was marking him. I could never get the better of him.

“Just so solid, so stock, really strong on the ball. Very few people I came up against I thought, “I’m caught for strength here.” It wasn’t as if he was aggressive or dirty but any time he was running with the ball and you tried to tackle him, he was just all there.

“The only other person I felt like that was Colin Corkery. You think that it’s going to be a handy day. But he had the strength as well, that you come ,off the pitch and think, “That was tough.”

“Declan Browne had everything. He had the cleverness and he had the speed. He was like a Corkery and a Fitzgerald and an Alan Brogan all rolled into one. He was so difficult to mark.”

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Declan Browne
Pic: INPHO/Patrick Bolger

In that All-Ireland semi-final against Kerry though, no Kerry forward got a look-in, in what was one of the great Meath team performances. Rather than being one of the high points of Meath football, Fay has an interesting theory about the county’s subsequent fall from grace. He believes that second half was a watershed for another reason.

When the supporters started cheering every Meath pass, a part of Fay instinctively cringed. He genuinely feels the empire began to crumble at that very moment, that the values of honesty, hard work and particularly respect that Boylan lived his life by, and demanded from the players, were undercut with every light-hearted cheer to rub Kerry noses in it.

“With 10 minutes or so remaining this “Olé” started. Oh yeah, you could hear it on the pitch, sure the whole stadium nearly was doing it. It took the goodness out of it.

“For that 10 minutes, for the first time I’ve ever experienced, and probably the first time Meath football experienced, an arrogance became part of Meath football. An arrogance to the players from the supporters.

“It was never like that before. Meath always treated teams with respect. And the players bought into it. John Cullinane scored a goal and it was a nothing goal. I think we were 12 points up and it put us 15 points up.

“He was hit a little bit late and he just turned around and went like that into one of the Kerry player’s faces”, says Fay, opening his arms out wide to illustrate as if to greet the crowd’s acclaim.

“That summed up exactly what happened after the whole thing started. When the supporters did that in the last 10 minutes and the players bought into it, that’s when Meath football started showing an arrogance and it’s never recovered from it.

“I remember we were walking out of Croke Park after the Kerry game, myself, Mark O’Reilly, Trevor Giles and John McDermott. We were all delighted. Sure you’d have to be after beating Kerry by 15 points.

“As we were walking I remember John McDermott saying to all of us, “That is actually going to do Meath more harm than it will Kerry.” And he didn’t say us, he said Meath. And you look at what happened. Meath haven’t got within an ass’s roar of winning an All-Ireland and Kerry have won what, four?’

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Kerry’s Dara Ó Cinnéide and Meath’s Darren Fay in action in 2001
Pic: INPHO/Morgan Treacy

With Galway awaiting in the All-Ireland final, it was shades of 1966 all over again. A Meath team buoyed by one of the great semi-final displays by any team. Set up for the fall. Fay recalls the party atmosphere in the build-up, as if the cup was already in transit.

“We used to train in Dunsany for our pitch work. Every single night, whether it was the Tuesday, the Thursday, or the Saturday, three, maybe four weeks to the All-Ireland final, the crowds of supporters were there, the media were there, everyone looking for an autograph or something.

“It used to be a once-off. A meet and greet with the players say on a Thursday night before an All-Ireland, same for media. But every single session seemed to be like that. It was a carnival atmosphere.

“John O’Mahony most have been rubbing his hands down in Galway, no-one coming next nor near to them. He must have been absolutely delighted to see what was going on in Meath.’

Croke Park, Sunday, September 23, 2001

It’s a measure of Darren Fay that he brings the same level of critical analysis to his own game. Going into the final, he has one personal record that is creating a legend all of its own.

Twenty-five Championship matches now and counting. Still an average of roughly one point from play conceded to his direct opponents. No player ever to score more than one score from play off him. Kildare’s Martin Lynch in 1998, the only player to thieve a goal off him.

As the Meath team exit the dressing room, Fay is one of the first out the door, ball in his left hand, blessing himself with his right. Padraic Joyce walks over before the throw-in and shakes hands. This is it.

In a tense first half, with both teams struggling to find their ‘A’ game, nothing separates the sides. Galway are feeding the two-man inside line of Joyce and Derek Savage at every opportunity, but Fay and Mark O’Reilly are giving it back in spades.

For the first time, Fay reveals where it all went wrong, how Meath’s season, and his
own record, unravelled in the most dramatic fashion.

“We went in six points all. I was marking Joyce … everything was grand. He hadn’t scored – now he’d missed a couple of easy frees. And he was completely off his game. He missed a free from 21 yards out nearly straight in front of the goal.

“I felt there was an uneasy feeling in the dressing room at half time. We were after kicking the s**t out of Kerry and all of a sudden we were drawing with Galway, and we can’t find the switch to flick it on again. It just wasn’t there.

“The cliché of you can’t go into a game and suddenly flick a switch and away you go, that was true for us. It became a case then of “Did Galway want to win this game?” If they did, we weren’t going to be able to stop them. That was the sense of it after half time.

“I remember sitting there thinking there’s no way we’re going to be able to kick into third gear, never mind fourth or fifth. The only way we were going to win that game was if Galway were afraid to win it. And let us win it.”

Less than a minute after the restart, Joyce gets in behind him and blazes over the bar with the goal at his mercy. Not long after that, Savage passes to Joyce who dodges one way, slips Fay, and scores. His second point from play. A defining moment.

“It was the first time ever in my playing career that someone had scored twice from play off me.”

Suddenly, the doubts swirled in Fay’s mind. Right in that moment, something snapped in him.

“Talk about panic on a football pitch. I says to Mark O’Reilly, “Look, I’m being roasted here, you may have a go.” That’s what happened. I made the switch myself onto [Derek] Savage. The high standards I set for myself was my downfall that day.”

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Padraig Joyce of Galway races away from Darren Fay
Pic: INPHO/Morgan Treacy

Defensive Change

O’Reilly’s low centre of gravity and reputation as one of the best man markers in the game means that he is the perfect fit for Savage. In size and physique, Fay squares off evenly with Joyce. Now Meath have two mismatches on their hands.

Everything that can go wrong is going wrong. Ollie Murphy retires with a broken wrist, Nigel Nestor is sent off for a second yellow card offence, and Trevor Giles misses a penalty. With Galway owning possession, they hit their inside line at will.

The second half turns into ‘The Padraic Joyce Show’. Joyce finishes with 10 points, five from play. Galway run out easy winners, 0-17 to 0-8. It’s Fay’s one big regret from a stellar career. The one thing that twists in his gut.

“I would love to go back to half time, stay in full-back. And for Joyce to kick 10 points off me, it would sit easier with me, instead of switching, because I thought I was getting a roasting after two.

“You know that kind of way? I’d love to do that. I’d say about 15 minutes later we switched back. But the damage was done. The game was gone.

“It’s funny. It’s amazing how the wheel goes full circle. The Galway fans were going, “Olé… Olé” … for the last 10 minutes of that game.”

For the next decade and more, Galway wouldn’t win a senior championship match at Croke Park.
Meath haven’t been back in a final since. Fay recounts his hardest day as a Meath footballer with a level of honesty that is as rare as it is admirable.

“I’d know Joyce well. We played International Rules together before and after. It’s probably the hardest thing for me to live with. For the simple reason being that you’ve spent five or six seasons getting a reputation for yourself, five or six years building a standard for yourself and then you ruin it all with 15 minutes of madness.’

Claiming that he ruined his reputation though isn’t true. The outstanding full-back of his generation just had a day when he was beaten by the better man.

As Mick Lyons put it once, the position of full-back is like ‘always being one bullet away’. That day, he took a bullet. Joyce played like a gunslinger with an itchy trigger finger. Fay didn’t ‘ruin it all’. Six years later, he was still proving himself.

“The most honest performance I actually ever gave was, ironically enough, against Galway in 2007. In Portlaoise, in a qualifier. Joyce was actually dropped for that game. I was marking Michael Meehan. It was so hard; it was nearly like the same whole thing again.

“But I never once wavered from it. That was the most honest performance I ever gave. It was exactly the same situation but I handled it differently. I was so keyed up for that game.”

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Darren Fay in action against Micheal Meehan of Galway in July 2007
Pic: INPHO/Lorraine O’Sullivan

In truth, the reason for Joyce’s tour de force was because of the pummelling Meath were taking all over the field. It was a rare systems failure. Compared to the semi-final, the players looked flat and heavy-legged. Fay blames it on the attitude that seeped from the stand in the semi-final.

“You could bring in other players if you want but the damage was done from what happened in the All-Ireland semi-final.

“Now looking back, there wasn’t a hope in hell we would have won that game anyway. There was no-one firing that day. John McDermott I’d say was the only one who could have held his head up high that day.

“I was supposed to go into work on the Wednesday but I couldn’t go in. I was just sitting at home here, thinking to myself, “This isn’t happening.” I shut myself out to the world. Sitting here now and looking back you think, “It’s only a game of football.” But the decision I made was hard to take.”

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Four Kings by Philip Lanigan is published by Hero Books.
More details can be found here

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About the author:

Fintan O'Toole

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