Royals weigh up natural assets
Published 12/02/2010 | 05:00
They may have been All-Ireland semi-finalists in two of the last three seasons but the betting markets are not convinced of Meath as a competitive force in 2010.
Not even a hard-fought opening League win over a resurgent Armagh on home ground on Saturday night last has done anything to make the odds on them for a first All-Ireland title in 12 years that bit leaner.
From a generous 50/1 with one firm to a more parsimonious 33/1 with another the message is much the same. They are, at best, the ninth but more probably the 10th, 11th or 12th most fancied team in the months ahead.
Kerry, Cork and Tyrone head every market, Dublin, Galway and Mayo are in their slipstream, Derry, Kildare and Armagh are commonly expected to be more of a threat leaving Meath, who haven't contested a Leinster final in nine years now, aligned with Monaghan and Down in most betting windows.
Put them under the microscope and maybe the bookies have their figures accurately calculated, still mindful of their collapse in the middle of the 2008 season against Wexford and Limerick.
That Limerick reversal has since been avenged but the conviction that was once Meath's hallmark has not yet taken hold on the betting sheets again.
The absence of a recognised full-back remains an issue long after Tommy Walsh's wrecking-ball effect in last year's All-Ireland semi-final and while the current centre-back, Cormac McGuinness, is a very fine player, wing back may be more suited to his particular talents.
In fact, when manager Eamonn O'Brien looks through his squad he sees an imbalance weighted not just to his forward line but to his full-forward line, where they could be deemed to have an oversupply of natural assets.
That provides the 2009 All-Ireland semi-finalists with their greatest conundrum, striking the right balance with the squad's potentially richest assets.
Anything up to eight of the eventual squad, provided they are all fit, would be considered more natural assets to a full-forward line, finishers and predators more than hard grafters or creators.
Of course not all fit strictly into this category of substance and kicking power and accuracy over speed and mobility. But it has helped to ensure a style of play that Meath have often found themselves resorting to in the last few seasons.
Stephen Bray, the only recent All Star among them (albeit at left half-forward) had his best season, 2007, as a corner-forward but has recently found himself plugging holes across the half-forward line where a dearth of that Dooher/Galvin prototype exists.
Likewise Joe Sheridan, who started last year's championship as a peripheral player but finished it as their most influential, has been filling in at centre-forward despite his natural predatory instincts on the edge of the square where his power disconcerts opponents.
For much of last season when they had momentum through the qualifiers Meath opted for David Bray, younger brother of Stephen, Brian Farrell and Cian Ward across the last line of attack and on different days they popped up to contribute valuable scores.
But while Ward had a spell in last year's League as a centre-forward and Farrell also gravitated out there in the 2009 championship, they too do their best work inside.
The emergence of Jamie Queeney, scorer of two impressive points late in last year's All-Ireland quarter-final win over Mayo and 2-13 in the recent O'Byrne Cup campaign, throws another strong candidate into the mix. But again he looks more comfortable at full-forward.
Brian Sheridan, Joe's younger brother with some similarities in style, was DCU's game-breaker in their recent Sigerson Cup victory over city rivals UCD, scoring two goals to cushion his side against a late onslaught. He may lack his brother's raw power but his football instincts are sharp.
The last name into the equation is Shane O'Rourke who has drifted off the scene since 2007 when, as a 19-year-old, he made his breakthrough in a qualifier run similar to last year. Blighted by back and hamstring injuries, he has lost ground but is close to a comeback and, in time, could offer more options with a posting most likely in an over-populated full-forward line.
Finding a couple of extra defenders remains Meath's priority over the remaining six League games but striking the right balance between so many forwards of comparable orientation will just as challenging.