Years of wasted youth cloud Meath's future
Published 03/06/2011 | 05:00
Back in April 2010, former Meath midfielder Gerry McEntee's concern at the pace at which his county's football fortunes had been dipping at all levels over the previous decade manifested itself into something tangible.
Under the heading "Getting Meath back on track" McEntee organised a seminar in the Knightsbrook Hotel on the outskirts of Trim where guest speakers from Kilkenny and Tyrone addressed a gathering of former Meath footballers, current coaches and anyone with the interest of the product at heart.
The choice of counties and the people who represented them was hugely significant. From Tyrone, where the wells of talent had been springing up since well back into the previous decade, Peter Canavan spoke of the coaching structures in the schools and clubs in Red Hand county. Niall Laird delved into the workings of 'Club Tyrone', the hugely successful fundraising arm which has become the template for the modern-day supporters' club.
And from Kilkenny, where the conveyor belt has only recent paused after an incredible 10 years, Ned Quinn and Michael Dempsey delivered the oratory on underage infrastructure and strength and conditioning techniques.
Quinn said he found it ironic to be in Meath addressing concerned parties about ways to improve their underage structures. He recalled coming to the county on a fact-finding mission as part of a county board delegation many years earlier when Kilkenny were reorganising their own structures.
They had looked to Meath's success in the 1980s and 1990s, now Meath were looking back to them.
The night went off well and the vibes were quite positive. Meath saw the night as a launchpad for the next 10 years and beyond. But the momentum wasn't carried and somewhere, sometime last summer the trail went cold. Not everyone in the existing coaching circles in Meath, it seemed, was singing off the same hymn sheet.
That McEntee should be so concerned about the condition of Meath underage football as to pull out the contacts book and start ringing numbers as he did 14 months ago has to have a link to the events of the last few weeks -- involving divided opinion over the recall of Graham Geraghty and the subsequent decision of two members of the management team to walk away.
Some argue that Geraghty's recall -- they pursued a 38-year-old who has not played a competitive game of Gaelic football at this level for three years -- reflects more on the management than the poor quality of player in the county.
But there was also a move to get 35-year-old Darren Fay back on the squad to provide some experience, particularly in training, three years after he too had wound up his inter-county career.
How does that reflect on the playing pool of a county that has virtually disappeared off the landscape when it comes to the distribution of the major underage awards?
The recall of Geraghty and the aborted attempt to lure Fay back would surely not have happened if Meath had sailed through their Division 2 league campaign with ease and had alternatives to choose from.
The evidence is there to suggest that the existing Meath team has actually punched above its weight when the county's underage record is considered.
Perhaps the corollary between underage and senior success is not as pointed as we would like to think. One and one doesn't always add up to two in these situations and the mentality of an entire county is often as strong a factor.
But it is no coincidence that the most likely three All-Ireland champions in 2011 -- Cork, Kerry and Dublin -- were also All-Ireland U-21 champions in 2008 (Kerry), '09 (Cork) and 2010 (Dublin). And Tyrone's All-Ireland titles in the last decade had their genesis in the 2000, '01 and '04 U-21 triumphs.
An examination of Meath's U-21 record over the last 10 years suggests strongly that there has been overachievment in the seniors reaching two All-Ireland semi-finals and winning a Leinster title in the last four years. It's 10 years since they last won a Leinster U-21 title and in that time no team has even made it back to a final.
Kildare have been their nemesis with victories in 2008 (1-14 to 0-5), '06 (2-13 to 1-8) and worst of all '05 (3-16 to 0-7).
The backbone of that '05 team contested an All-Ireland minor final three years earlier, which illustrates the alarming decline of Meath teams from minor to U-21 level more than anything.
In all, Meath have lost five times over the last decade to Kildare, beating them just once, in '07, the only year in the 10 that they won two games in the campaign. That's a 42pc success rate in the competition, well below Dublin, Kildare, Laois and even Offaly. Two of their seven victories at U-21 level since '01 have come against Carlow and Kilkenny, which add further disclaimers.
The record at minor level across the same time period has been somewhat better. Three teams in particular have stood out: '02 when they reached an All-Ireland final and '06 and '08 when they won Leinster titles and contested All-Ireland semi-finals.
But the performances of those corresponding minor teams three years later at U-21 level have been disappointing, and that is the core of the Meath's problem.
In essence, the attempts to address this problem have not been as co-ordinated as they should be. Kerry have already appointed Eamonn Fitzmaurice as their next U-21 manager to replace John Kennedy. Would there be the same proactivity in Meath for the position next year if Liam Harnan, the incumbent, vacated?
So like Cork hurling, until Meath starts churning out successful underage teams again there can't be an expectancy to compete at senior level every year.
And the temptation to dip back into the past might not be nearly as strong.