O'Dowd hopeful change of direction can get royals back in fast lane
Modern-day tactics and emphasis on pace key to Meath revolution, writes Donnchadh Boyle
AT training last Thursday night, the emphasis Meath coach Sean Kelly put on the session was clear. Around 20 minutes was devoted to tackling and getting numbers around the man in possession to help produce the magic 'turnovers'. Other routines were designed to show forwards how to circumvent the sweeper system.
By the admission of most in the county, Meath have been slow to adapt to the ever-evolving styles in Gaelic football and, while they haven't been the only traditional power who have found change difficult, Mick O'Dowd's appointment was seen as a step in the right direction.
At the media session after training, the Meath players carried the same message. The Royals are in 'project mode', looking at what they can achieve in the medium term and not just at claiming a scalp or two this summer.
"Managers have to be given time to establish their own style and their own method with their team," Meath captain Kevin Reilly said. "And they have to allow their team to settle as well.
"In Meath, we have seen over the years that managers come in on one and two-year terms and are only really starting to find their feet when we get a new guy.
"From a player's point of view, it's unfortunate that we have to start again. You press the reset button and it's back to square one every couple of years. So, I think it's vitally important that we get stability. I think Mick is definitely bringing that and we are building and evolving. It will take time."
Being an internal appointment, O'Dowd (pictured left) was always going to be given more slack than his predecessor Seamus McEnaney, even after the heavy defeats to Cavan and Monaghan early in the Division 3 league campaign.
But by then he had already made a statement about the direction his Meath team were heading in. Of his training squad of 31, 13 weren't part of the panel last year.
"There were a few hairy moments in the league," O'Dowd agreed. "I kind of expected there to be. I didn't think it would be smooth sailing, with all the change going on. And then you were coming up against teams that were well settled and further advanced in their training and strength and conditioning.
"As well as that, when we came in, there were 13 fellas injured and many of them were key leaders of the team. So, we made a decision, that you might say was with June 15 and Wicklow in mind. We gave them a longer period to recover rather than rushing them back for the first round of the league."
An acknowledgement of the new world Meath are facing into came in the axing of Cian Ward. One of Meath's most naturally talented footballers, he didn't meet the requirements of the new side.
Instead, Meath have opted for pace. Eamon Wallace, a member of the minor squad last year before athletic commitments took over, has been fast-tracked to the senior side. A national sprint champion, the Ratoath man is one of the fastest inter-county footballers around.
Pace, in fact, has been added throughout the side and O'Dowd agreed he deliberately sought out speedsters to help the Royals adapt.
"You're looking for so many things – pace, strength, two feet and when you get into Croke Park you need the legs."
The players have also noticed the change, with physical size, so often a mainstay of Meath teams, now of secondary importance.
"Traditionally, we would have been a big and strong team," Reilly said. "To be fair, I think those lads were pacy enough, but these guys are very, very fast. They give defenders headaches. We will have to wait and see what the championship brings in terms of how they get on."
They made a winning visit to Aughrim during the league, but it has proved a sticky place to go in the past, particularly during the Mick O'Dwyer era.
A date with Wexford in the semi-final awaits the winners and the possibility of a return to the Leinster decider, something Reilly would deem as progress.
"For Meath football, we have to be back challenging in finals. I think it's very important and it's a minimum requirement for supporters and players alike that you do go back and contest finals."
Thirty years on from Sean Boylan's first campaign, Meath fans would surely agree.