Royals must come up with new strategy
THE ousting of Meath manager Eamonn O'Brien this week has certainly caused a stir in a county that prefers to keeps its business away from the public gaze.
I've noticed the consensus is that O'Brien, a manager who has always conducted himself with great dignity, was paying the price for the County Board's failure to take responsibility in the wake of the Leinster final saga.
I've sympathy for O'Brien, in that he probably achieved the county's main goal this year by winning the Leinster title -- they were even being spoken about as All-Ireland contenders after beating Dublin.
However, as we touched on here some weeks back, I don't believe that the emergence of club dissatisfaction with O'Brien's tenure is entirely political or entirely to do with the fall-out over the Leinster controversy.
Meath have been an emerging team for some years now after reaching two All-Ireland semi-finals and the pressure for them to advance has been growing. Having beaten Dublin, expectations in the county heightened further, but the subsequent Leinster final debacle and loss to Kildare shattered those expectations.
Worse still was the way they lost to Kildare after a dream start. While I believe tactics can only get you so far, it seemed obvious to me that Meath weren't as tactically developed as Kildare in that they couldn't cope with Kildare's intensity in the second half.
This isn't something that you can just switch on in a quarter-final. What Kieran McGeeney has shown with Kildare is that with proper preparation, you can make progress every year at the business end of the championship -- increasingly the only part of the championship that really matters.
Kildare and Dublin didn't go out purposely to lose in Leinster this year, but they were obviously preparing their teams for a different challenge, one very much based on the step-up in August.
You could argue that Meath already reached two All-Ireland semi-finals in recent years and have actually won something, unlike the Lilywhites, but there was a sense after the loss to Kildare, and particularly the manner of that setback, that Meath hadn't really pushed on as a team.
McGeeney's graph in Kildare continues to point one direction after three years, despite losing some of his best players to injury along the way. And while Kildare didn't play particularly well in their semi-final, they got very little luck and were still banging the door down in the end.
By comparison, Meath, with an abundance of forward talent, haven't proven that they are ready to contest an All-Ireland final. In fact, if you remove the goals against Dublin, three of which emerged from refereeing oversights, they still look off the pace.
Against Kerry last year, they stuck with route one, despite the game slipping from them in the second half and once again this year they didn't seem to have a system that could cope with being on the back foot.
Leinster might still be in the doldrums in terms of All-Irelands, but there is evidence that Dublin and Kildare are closing the gap by sharpening their focus on a system that can cope with football in August.
And I've little doubt that there are plenty of football people in Meath who believe a more tactical approach to the set-up might reap richer rewards for the county, particularly as they have so many decent players.
They probably have the best forward unit in the province and Seamus Kenny and Graham Reilly have already shown how versatile they can be as 'defensive' forwards. But what the 2010 campaign has revealed is that Meath's traditional game of constant movement up front and long direct balls isn't sufficient to make the breakthrough.
Tyrone have proven over the past decade that with a disciplined tactical approach, a team's weaknesses can be overcome. During that period Tyrone never possessed a noted midfield partnership, for example, yet they still have three recent All-Irelands in the bag.
After this week's events it appears there is a sizeable group in Meath GAA circles that believes the county has enough good players to be contesting the big prize and that O'Brien isn't the man to lead them forward. Of course, the big question now is whether they can find a suitable replacement, one who will help the team to overcome the next big step. That might mean altering Meath's traditional approach and that will create its own difficulties.
Pat Gilroy got plenty of stick in Dublin for his defensive set-up during the league, and when they lost to Meath in June, faith in the system had to be built from scratch.
Like a lot of counties, Meath could probably do with a root and branch review of all their county grades because it seems that unless there is a unity of purpose among all the county squads, progress is difficult.
And it's important that the goal for a team is clear. Cavan and Limerick can change managers this year, but they're not going to win the All-Ireland in 2011.
However, when they look at Down, Meath must sense the benefits that can come from a change of management at the right time.
It will be interesting to see if Meath approach some or several of their former players to take the position.
There is no shortage of serious men in the county, such as Colm O'Rourke, Mick Lyons, Trevor Giles and John McDermott, who would surely command great respect.
Giles himself was something of a pioneer as a pivotal roving forward and I've little doubt he would be a huge addition to the set-up. And his age profile fits with that of James McCartan, Gilroy and McGeeney, young managers who have brought so much life to this year's championship.
Past players are often slow to throw their names into the hat unless they know the position is secured, but I'm sure the fact that all four semi-finalists this year were managed by former All-Ireland medal winners will see the Royals opt for a former player.
This is a big step for Meath and one that will be watched closely everywhere -- nowhere more so than in Dublin.