Beating Dubs a poisoned chalice for Meath
WITH the dust settled on a weekend of drama after the football quarter-finals, I must admit that I was looking forward last Sunday to reading what Meath's senior analyst Colm O'Rourke had to say about their shortcomings against Kildare.
I was wondering would there be a bit of blood-letting? Would Eamonn O'Brien's tactics be scrutinised? Would individual performances be criticised? Would new players be touted? Would Meath's structures be examined?
In short, I was looking for Meath to be subjected to the same level of analysis as that of their neighbours who they tanked in the Leinster semi-final. And, indeed, the level of analysis afforded most top teams nowadays -- Kerry were certainly put through the wringer after their performance.
I was genuinely interested to know why Meath, of all the possible contenders in the last eight, seemed to be off the pace with regard to their tactical approach. Why were they so exposed by Kildare?
However, instead of an educated insider's assessment of the Royals' failure, what I read last Sunday was how Dublin were lucky to beat Tyrone and how hype will now become a factor. I suppose that's the Meath way.
Okay, so it's easier to ignore the specifics of Meath's collapse and concentrate on Dublin. Except that, had Dublin collapsed to Kildare, do we think for one minute the specifics of that collapse would have been ignored?
I agree that Meath's county players should not have to engage in club action so soon after crashing out of the championship, but what about Meath's unfortunate season that seemed to promise so much a short while back?
There's no doubt Meath have good players, particularly up front, and they are considered an emerging squad, one that was expected by most pundits to push on this year. Their early form seemed to indicate this was the case.
But besides suffering the curse of provincial winners and the fallout after the Leinster final, there looked to be more to their failure to live with Kildare in the second half, particularly after their dream start. And the comparison with both Down and Dublin, who both enjoyed good starts in their respective quarter-finals, is striking.
Meath didn't tackle as effectively as Kildare and their defence struggled repeatedly to cope with Kildare's accurate passing to their forwards.
To be fair, Seamus Kenny and Graham Reilly worked tirelessly tracking back from their wing-forward slots, but it never seemed enough to counter Kildare's onslaught.
Twenty years ago, tackling was Meath's greatest strength and when Sean Boylan reinvented his squad in the 1990s, they were probably the first team to employ a sweeper effectively behind midfield with Trevor Giles.
I'd go as far as saying that Meath probably provided the blueprint for Armagh and Tyrone in the 2000s. Now they don't seem to have a system effective enough to take the team to the next level.
Amid the early summer promise, questions were raised about a lack of pace, man markers and weaknesses in midfield. While you couldn't fault many of their players for effort, why were their shortcomings so evident against Kildare again? Or are they simply not yet up to the standard as a squad to seriously compete for an All-Ireland?
The trend with the top squads today seems to be to use a system based on collective work rate over everything else. Yet it still requires players to be competent when it comes to playing football.
You would imagine Meath, given their traditions, would be ideally suited to the modern approach -- particularly as they have great finishers in their forward division. However, looking at the Kildare game, they didn't seem to be able to counter Kildare's full court press in the last 20 minutes.
And remember this is a year after looking terribly one-dimensional against Kerry in last year's All-Ireland semi-final.
Kieran McGeeney's influence was all over Kildare's display. So, if we accept the flip side is true for Meath, then is it not a valid question to ask were they properly prepared for this contest? As a traditionalist it's hard sometimes to accept change, but when we look at just how effective a well-drilled tactical approach can be, particularly in Kildare's case, it's really impossible to argue against.
Maybe hammering Dublin was the worst thing that could have happened to Meath this year and there's little doubt the drama around the Leinster final didn't help.
August is when your system is properly tested and it looks as if Meath are going to have to bite the bullet and bring a new order to their play if they want to progress. The confidence generated from winning a provincial title is fleeting, something we know only too well in Dublin.
There was always a belief in my playing days that Dublin and Meath both needed to be strong if either was to prosper. With the back door the preferred route it's hard to follow this logic any more. Still, Meath will now have a clearer understanding of Dublin's problems over the past decade.
Beating Dublin may have felt like a big step for Meath this season, but it is ironic that Dublin benefited more from that defeat. They did so because they were able to make incremental progress through the low-key qualifiers with the manager reasserting his game-plan.
And, as O'Rourke pointed out last week, even if the semi-final is the limit of Dublin's progress this year; it is still progress. It would be hard to say the same for Meath, though, as their approach continues to look limited at the top table.
It has taken Dublin a ridiculously long time to put themselves back into contention and even then, no one in the capital is under any illusions about the challenge against All-Ireland favourites Cork on Sunday week.
Of the two great rivals, Meath may be the only ones with silverware at the end of the season. But, make no mistake, it is a poisoned chalice.