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Proud captain in '49, later Chairman of the Meath County Board - Brian Smyth will always be linked with Meath G.A.A.

Meath's captain fantastic

Before this year’s Bank of Ireland Football Championships national newspapers and GAA magazines will carry extensive previews, looking at the prospects of all teams, listing past records, managers and captains.

It was so different 50 years ago when Brian Smyth led Meath to All-Ireland glory for the first time.

Picture the scene at a Leinster championship first round game against Kildare at Croke Park. The two teams are taking part in the pre match parade and Royal County supporters are wondering why there are only 13 players walking around in green and gold.

In one of the dressing-rooms Meath were deciding who would captain their team! Skryne were county senior champions and the honour would go to either Brian Smyth or Micheal O’Brien.

Both had contributed to Meath’s All-Ireland junior hurling triumph of the previous year. It was touch and go as to whether the Royal County would make the breakthrough in the ball or small ball game at the time. After a National League success in 1946 and a Leinster success in ‘47 Meath football had dropped to the doldrums before the great triumph of 1949.

Players weren’t exactly queuing up, wanting to be the captain of the Meath football team at the time. A team which a few months earlier was trounced to the tune of 3-10 to 0-3 in the National League at Breffni Park. The 1948-49 NFL campaign certainly did not inspire confidence with Westmeath receiving a walk over in a Kells fixture after a travelling mix up left the home side with only eight players.

Mattie Gilsenan, the only surviving selector from that wonderful era in Meath’s football history, recalled: “The county champions supplied the county captain then and in 1949 it was left to the Skryne club to decide. They left it between the two players to sort out the matter. Michael O’Brien was a very shy man and preferred to let Brian Smyth have the honour and, of course, the rest if history.”

Before 1949 Meath were among the also rans of inter county gaelic football. In 62 years of GAA competition the Royal County had won just four Leinster titles, there were two unsuccessful All-Ireland final appearances and two National League victories.

Kerry (with 16 triumphs) and Dublin (15 titles) were clear leaders in the All-Ireland roll of honour. Dublin were well ahead in the number of Leinster titles gained with 23 outright successes. Kildare and Wexford were next with 10 apiece.

In the 1940s, like in the ‘90s the honours were well distributed in Leinster with six different provincial kingpins in as many years between 1942 and ‘47 with Dublin, Louth, Carlow, Wexford, Laois and Meath qualifying for the All-Ireland series in that period.

Meath captured All-Ireland honours against all odds in 1949 and Mattie Gilsenan is of the opinion that three games against Louth ‘made’ the team and hardened them for the tough against highly fancied Mayo and Cavan in the last two rounds.

The first time champions had legendary figures like Paddy O’Brien, Peter McDermott, Brian Smyth, Paddy Meegan, Frankie Byrne etc. According to selector Gilsenan, Smyth was ‘a great leader whom team mates looked up to’ and also ‘a very unassuming player.’

“Brian was very clever, as clever as a fox. He was great at pulling at a dropping ball near the goals. There was no hesitation with him and I remember him scoring a wonderful goal in Drogheda when lashing to the net with half a chance. He was often at his most dangerous when appearing to be out of a game,” added the Moynalty veteran.

Fr Packie Tully played a big part in Meath’s first All-Ireland triumph of 50 years ago. The Sam Maguire Cup was annexed in the Moynalty curate’s first year as county chairman. The late prelate also trained the team and rated his captain of ‘49 as one of the best to have worn the green and gold.

In a Meath GAA Yearbook article over 20 years ago Fr. Tully paid the following tribute to Brian Smyth:
“One who has been laughed at but who always had the last laugh is none other than Brian Smyth. In his time Brian played in all forward positions, at midfield and even at centre half back, but his best position was on the ‘forty’.

“He was a natural leader. He was laughed at for apparent stumbling or slipping or half falling as if he could neither walk or run. He had the last laugh because when he was in that innocent looking mood he was most dangerous and in a flash produced something brilliant from the bag.

“To this day former Cavan players of the late 40s and early 50s talk of him as the most dreaded of opponents. At times he might be subdued for 59 and a half minutes but in the other 30 seconds the stroke of genius would strike to make all the difference.

“After the 1956 National League semi-final against Armagh in Casement Park Michael O’Hehir suggested that Armagh would have won if they had a Brian Smyth.”

The man who played club football with Batterstown, Skryne and Dunboyne was one of the craftiest forwards of that era. Of course, there were no All Star awards then but Smyth was selected on two Ireland teams, in 1950 and ‘51, for the annual representative games against the Combined Universities.
In 1950 he was centre half forward and captain when Ireland won by 1-12 to 2-3. That year Smyth was one of three Meath players on the national side, Kevin Smyth and Paddy O’Brien being the other two.
That was the first of such representative games and famous names of the time like Sean Flanagan (Mayo), Jackie Lyne (Kerry) and the Cavan trio of Tony Tighe, Victor Sherlock and Peter Donohoe were among the team mates of Smyth. Padraig Carney and Peter Solan (Mayo) and Jim Brosnan (Kerry) were notables on the Universities team.

In 1951 Ireland won by 0-10 to 0-9. Paddy O’Brien was again at full back and Brian Smyth was at right forward with the great Cavan attacker Mick Higgins on the ‘40. Although lining out a few times for Leinster, Smyth never managed to win a Railway Cup medal.

Brain was on five Royal County senior football winning sides, in 1947, ‘49, ‘51, ‘52 and ‘54, starring in a second All-Ireland success in the last of those years. He was also part of Meath’s 1950-51 National League triumph as Meath became the first team to win that title in New York.

As well as being an exemplary captain, Brian Smyth notched a number of important scores in the march to glory in 1949. He sent over four points in the final victory over Cavan.

A press report of Meath’s 1-10 to 1-6 victory on September 25th, 1949 said: “Probably the cleverest display was given by Brian Smyth. Giving a scintillating display from the first minute, the Meath captain was a captain par excellence. His uncanny anticipation, impeccable judgement, shrewd eye for an opening, speed on the ball, ability to lap up punishment, intelligent backing up of the man in possession, superb fielding, talent for giving a well timed pass and accuracy in scoring efforts were the hallmarks of a classic display of centre forward football.”

Even though gaining so much honours in football, hurling was Smyth’s first love. He was also in attack for Meath’s All-Ireland junior success in 1948 and went on to play at senior level for the county, sharing in four National League Division 2 victories. He played club hurling for Flathouse, Obestown and Dunboyne.

Even though famous for being the first Meathman to lift the Sam Maguire Cup in the Hogan Stand, Brian has been better known as “a hurling man” in latter years. He has had two long stints as secretary of the Meath Hurling Board, first for 20 years and then for 15 years after taking a break from the position.
He was chairman of the County Board from 1979 to ‘85 and Meath’s most notable success during those years was the annexation of the Centenary Cup in 1984. The Dunboyne clubman was in the ‘hot seat’ when another ‘hurling man’, Sean Boylan, became the Meath senior football team coach.

Brian Smyth has also represented Meath on the Leinster Council over the years and enjoyed a career as a football and hurling referee. His biggest honour was handling the 1961 All-Ireland junior football final between Louth and Yorkshire in Leeds.

Overall Brian Smyth has contributed very generously to the GAA in Meath and on a wider scale. Undoubtedly one of the classiest football forwards ever to represent the Royal County, he would also be a contender for a place on an all time hurling team. After his playing days ended he left few stone unturned in the promotion of the games he loves.

It is great to see Meath’s first All-Ireland winning captain still so actively involved in the running of our national games 50 years after his greatest hour. Happy anniversary, Brian.