Dublin keeping close eye on fiercest rivals
While Dublin GAA fans understandably concentrate on the fate of their own team in the national league each year, many of them also keep one eye on what's happening across the county boundary in Meath.
In the past 20 years a championship game against Meath has usually been the first genuine test of Dublin's prospects and therefore Dublin GAA people are extra curious about their neighbours this year because Dublin play Meath on June 7. Even though this is the first championship game of 2009 for both sides, it is also a Leinster quarter-final.
Football logic, if there were such a thing, would decree that Dublin will take care of Meath without any bother this year, but in the absence of logic, both sets of fans -- and probably players too -- can convince themselves that anything can happen in this contest.
That may be surprising to most other people, because in terms of football ability, big time experience and availability of talent, Dublin should be streets ahead of Meath, who last year managed to surrender a 10-point lead to Wexford in the Leinster campaign.
Meath's NFL performances are being watched carefully by Dublin people and Saturday's game with Monaghan was quite informative for those who dig beneath the surface.
Last year was one of the worst in living memory for Meath as they lost in ignominious fashion in the championship to Wexford and Limerick, which prompted the resignation of manager Colm Coyle. We then had a torturous process leading to the appointment of a new manager with all sorts of names from inside and outside Meath being touted.
Eventually sanity prevailed when Eamon O'Brien, who had served his time with many teams, but most notably with Sean Boylan in successful times, was appointed.
By general consensus within the county, Meath have slim enough resources available to O'Brien in comparison with the past 20 odd years when four All-Irelands were won. Underage success has been scarce on the ground, but the most serious defect has been the departure of several long-serving Meath football icons.
One of the last of these to bow out was Graham Geraghty. Although he came back last year, he definitely seems to have said goodbye this time. That means that only midfielder Nigel Crawford of the current Meath panel has a 1999 All-Ireland winner's medal.
Faced with this serious lack of seasoned campaigners, the selectors are doing what Meath have specialised in over the years -- they select their best players to fill key positions, even if that means radical changes from previous positions. Geraghty himself was one of the best examples of that when he first made his name as a brilliant wing half-back before finishing his career as an equally effective full-forward. Something Dublin fans will attest to in recent years.
In league action on Saturday night in Navan, one of the county's best defenders of recent years, Caoimhin King, was positioned at full-forward and was quite successful there, even if he so far lacks the complete polish of a born-and-bred forward. Meath have often recycled players into full-backs going back to Jack Quinn many years ago and on Saturday the latest such move saw Anthony Moyles settle in very comfortably in the No 3 position where he looks likely to stay.
Kevin Reilly, too, is looking the part at centre half-back, while centre-forward Cian Ward scored three points from play and gave his Monaghan opponent, Gary McQuaid, a tough time. And what could be a most effective midfield pairing of Crawford and the towering Mark Ward, means that Meath are quickly implanting good players in the six key positions around the field.
That said, as we looked at Meath's performance against Monaghan, it is clear that they have a long way to go if they are to stop recent championship defeats by their great rivals on June 7.
But their defence is gradually gelling into a unit and it was only when two backs got sent off for yellow cards that Monaghan began to get through for scores in the final quarter. Monaghan got no score at all in the first 20 minutes of the second half, but came storming back with five points to snatch a draw at 0-12 each.
In ideal conditions, this was a fine game of football with only five of the 24 points coming from frees which is well below the average for Monaghan-Meath league games, I would reckon.
The so called new rules never seemed to be mentioned and one wonders, can it really be the case that games between these two hard-hitting counties over the coming years are really going to be as fluid and free-flowing for ever more if the rule changes actually kick in next month at the GAA Congress?
If it happens it will change the face of Gaelic football forever, but there is still many a slip between cup and lip before it actually happens.
In the meantime, Dublin GAA people will keep a close eye on their neighbours knowing that a Meath team with real passion and a sound backbone throughout the side has often been the basis for very uncomfortable afternoons in Croke Park, even if the overall quality of the 15 to 20 players on view for Meath is well behind Dublin's overall talent.
And with Kildare looking like a genuine team again under Kieran McGeeney who knows, we might see Dublin getting a real run for their money as they seek to win a fifth successive Leinster championship.