All-Ireland Minor Football Championship final
Tyrone v Meath
Saturday, Croke Park, 1pm
By Niall Gartland
THERE can be no bones about it; the two best teams in the country have qualified for Saturday’s All-Ireland Minor final.
Tyrone have been virtually impeccable en route to Saturday’s showpiece – an average of 28.5 points per game tells its own story – but it would be foolish to perceive this match as a fait accompli for the Red Hands.
The ‘sleeping giant’ tag will remain affixed to Meath football until they sort themselves out at senior level, but the Royals have bagged three of the last four Leinster Minor titles – and the feeling within the county is that this year’s crop is their finest in decades.
Graham Geraghty starred as Meath won the All-Ireland Minor title in 1990, and Trevor Giles was a key cog in the team which reclaimed the Tommy Markham Cup two years later, so the fact this current outfit is being spoken about in the same breath is itself revealing.
More on Meath later, but for now we’ll shine a spotlight on Gerry Donnelly’s Tyrone, who, by twist of fate, have the benefit of playing in the curtain-raiser to the delayed All-Ireland semi-final at senior level between Tyrone and Kerry.
And don’t underestimate it as a factor – tickets were officially sold out even before Meath qualified for the decider, so no matter how many tickets are still floating about, it’s virtually like a home tie for the northerners.
Sometimes it’s hard to assess how many players will come through a minor team.
Of the Tyrone team which last reached an All-Ireland minor final (back in 2013), only Frank Burns and Conor McKenna are likely to start against Kerry on Saturday afternoon, but there’s reason to hope this particular bunch of players are more in line with the legendary Tyrone minor teams of the late ‘90s.
They’ve been absolutely dominant throughout their run to the final – and on the singular occasion the wheels threatened to come off, in the third quarter of the Ulster final win over Donegal, they responded with quickfire goals from their inspirational captain Cormac Devlin and Conor Owens, who has excelled repeatedly in a super sub role.
Their pace and power is notable – it’s not every day a decent Cork side gets out-muscled, but that’s exactly what happened when Tyrone dished out a 0-23 to 1-6 trouncing in last Saturday’s All-Ireland semi-final.
It’s always good to have something to work on, and the only blot on their copy book was their failure to score any goals, in large part thanks to a stunning performance from Cork goalkeeper Daniel Walsh, the recipient of the official Man of the Match award.
On the whole though, it’s hard to see any obvious weaknesses on this Tyrone team.
Forwards like Eoin McElholm, Cormac Quinn, Gavin Potter, Ronan Cassidy, Ronan Strain and Jack Martin, who recently returned from injury, are more than capable of taking a score (yep, you could nearly name every single forward on their match-day panel), while their midfield duo Ruairi McHugh and Ronan Donnelly have formed an effective partnership.
Then at the back, Ronan Fox, Callan Kelly and Shea O’Hare have been safe as houses, and yeah, you could give their management team a mention as well – Ciaran Gourley and Conor Gormley are among those lending a hand to manager Gerard Donnelly.
But Meath have the potential to make a real game of this, at the very least.
They’ve made serious strides at underage level, and this is a natural next step as it’s their first appearance in an All-Ireland Minor final since 2012.
They demolished an admittedly fairly poor Dublin team in the Leinster final by 3-8 to 0-3, and controlled 90 per cent of the contest in their All-Ireland semi-final victory over underdogs Sligo.
Players to watch out for include their captain Liam Kelly, a seriously promising defender, wing-back Shaun Leonard, who was Man of the Match against Sligo, and forwards Hughie Corcoran and Christian Finlay.
Like Tyrone, they have a very strong spine down the middle, and also like Tyrone, they have a solid team ethos instilled by their manager Cathal O Bric.
They also have a number of starting players recruited from their current u-20 team, so when you add it all up, they should make for formidable opponents on the day.
It’s been a fantastic year for both these sides, and it’s the type of game that could come down to managerial decisions and whoever copes best with the occasion.
Yet a few other factors bode in Tyrone’s favour; they have a superior subs’ bench and will have the benefit of being roared on by thousands of supporters clad in red and white on Saturday. For those reasons, and the fact they were almost note perfect in their All-Ireland semi-final against Cork, we’ll give them the nod to take the Tom Markham Cup back to Tyrone for the ninth time.