Direct route through Leinster is Meath’s best plan of attack insists Royals legend Flynn
MEATH'S relationship with the Leinster football championship has disintegrated so badly that there may be a natural tendency to continue flirting with the All-Ireland qualifiers which have been much more amendable to Royal advances in recent years.
Three wins -- against Carlow, Kildare and Louth -- from nine games is Meath's dismal Leinster return over the past five seasons, a period in which they have failed to reach a single provincial semi-final. Yet, remarkably, they qualified for two All-Ireland semi-finals in the same period, having made productive use of the qualifiers where they boast a superb record.
They won 11 of 14 qualifier ties in the last five seasons, followed by All-Ireland quarter-final wins over Tyrone in 2007 and Mayo last year. And while Cork and Kerry ended Meath's run in the subsequent semi-finals, it still suggests that Meath have become more suited to life behind the 'back door'.
However, it's an existence which won't ever restore them to their former greatness, according to Bernard Flynn, a central figure in Meath's 1987-88 All-Ireland winning teams.
"Leinster is the way to go. Meath are better suited to playing off the front foot. We've got to get back being really competitive in Leinster which, unfortunately, hasn't been the case for too long now. Facts are facts and the truth is Meath haven't won a Leinster title for nine years and made no impression whatsoever for the past five years," he said.
It's Meath's longest stretch without a Leinster final since 1955-64 and while qualifier progress has eased the disappointment it can't disguise the fact that Royal stock has plummeted.
Said Flynn: "To some degree, the qualifiers have masked the reality of where we've really been. We got some easy enough draws in the qualifiers over the years and, while we exploited them well and went on to beat Tyrone and Mayo in All-Ireland quarter-finals in '07 and 09, they were largely one-off performances," said Flynn.
He questions whether there has been the same attitude in Meath as in the successful counties and believes there has to be a fundamental change of mindset across a range of areas.
The never-say-die spirit which epitomised Meath football for so long hasn't been anywhere near as prevalent in recent years, resulting in a failure to even reach the last four in Leinster, a zone they have conceded to Dublin, Laois, Kildare, Westmeath, Wexford and Offaly.
"As a former player and a supporter nowadays, I want to see us returning to the days when the opposition hated taking us on because they knew Meath were never beaten, however much they fell behind. That takes a certain mindset and a certain spirit. The question is -- where has it gone?"
"It's very disappointing to have done so badly in a province where the standard hasn't been all that high in recent years. Having said that, we are where we are and now the aim has to be to win a Leinster title inside the next two years. If we don't get things right in Leinster, we won't get them right outside, certainly when it comes to winning All-Ireland titles," said Flynn.
He cites a lack of consistency as one of the big problems and also identifies areas where the team needs to be strengthened.
"Meath can turn it on in style on a given day but they don't maintain it which is what the really good teams do. In terms of where we must improve, I'd look at defence where we need two or three more really good players, and midfield.
"Shane O'Rourke's return will be a big help in attack but overall there's an urgent need to produce more even performances. I was disappointed that didn't happen in the League. Instead it tended to be more of the same -- good one day, disappointing the next."
However, Flynn believes that if Meath can beat Offaly next Sunday and Laois in the quarter-final to return to Leinster the semi-final for the first time since 2004, it could mark a significant point in their reemergence.
"Ideally, what Meath need is to reach the semi-final and then play Dublin. That's the type of game Meath need to win to get the spirit really going.
"You'd have to say Dublin are still favourites to win the Leinster title but we'd always be hoping in Meath. First things first though, Meath have got to be very careful against Offaly next Sunday," he said.
It really is extraordinary that a county that failed to reach its own provincial semi-finals for five successive years qualified for two All-Ireland semi-finals in the last three seasons. It points to a split personality and now the big question is -- which side will prevail this year?
"We certainly don't want a repeat of what happened in 2008, the year after we reached the All-Ireland semi-final. I though that things were heading in the right direction under Colm Coyle when Meath beat Galway and Tyrone in 2007 but 2008 was a total disaster," said Flynn.
It was one of the few times in the past five years when they failed to make use of the qualifiers for after being eliminated from Leinster by Wexford, they were hammered by Limerick in the first round of the qualifiers.