Sunday 4 December 2016

Glint of silver most welcome in Meath but it won't solve the longer-term problem - a shortage of quality

Published 23/01/2016 | 02:30

Mick O'Dowd watches his Meath team warm up ahead of their O'Byrne Cup clash against Louth Photo: Sam Barnes / SPORTSFILE
Mick O'Dowd watches his Meath team warm up ahead of their O'Byrne Cup clash against Louth Photo: Sam Barnes / SPORTSFILE

Mick O'Dowd hadn't even left the pitch after Meath beat Louth in Drogheda last Sunday when he heard that Longford had shocked Dublin in the other Bord na Mona O'Byrne Cup semi-final.

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"A bit of a surprise alright but fair play to Longford, they have obviously worked very hard to get this far," he said.

He could never admit it but it wasn't the result Meath wanted. For while it gives them a better chance of winning the O'Byrne Cup for the first time in 10 years, it also creates the risk of heading into the Allianz League on a downer after losing to lower-ranked opposition.

Besides, they would have liked to test themselves against Dublin, even if January isn't exactly noted for producing a reliable form guide. Meath only have to go back to last year for proof of that.

They ran Dublin to two points in a very intense O'Byrne Cup semi-final in Pairc Tailteann, raising hopes that they would be good enough to take one of the two promotion slots in Division 2.

At the very least, it suggested Meath were ready for a quick dash from the starting blocks.

Instead, they lost to Galway and Roscommon in two of their first three outings and while they took seven of a possible eight points from their remaining four games, it wasn't enough to bring them aboard the promotion bus.

They finished a point behind Down, who took 11 points, and level with Roscommon but lost out on the head-to-head rule. Adding to Meath's frustration was the fact that they had beaten Down comfortably. And in Newry too, where they were seven-point winners.

Meath would have been promoted ahead of Roscommon under the scoring average system which applied for years but missed out this time because head-to-head is now considered more important than overall scoring returns. Such are the tight margins that can prove so important.

So instead of looking forward to a Division 1 campaign against Dublin, Cork, Kerry, Mayo, Monaghan, Donegal and Down over the next few months, Meath are once again stuck in Division 2.

The top flights is an unforgiving environment unless a squad is ready for it but, at the same time, huge benefits can accrue from playing against the leading sides in the spring campaign.

It's an experience Meath haven't had for ten years, an incredibly long time for a county which ranks fourth on the All-Ireland senior honours list.

So while Meath could consider themselves unlucky not to have been promoted last year, they have to accept that over the longer stretch, the figures don't lie.

Division 2 has been their natural habitat since 2006 and when change came it was for the worse, as they dropped into Division 3 in 2012.

They came back up a year later but haven't been able to make it to the top flight, unlike Monaghan who were also relegated to Division 3 in 2012, only to complete the rise to Division 1 in successive seasons.

Of course, therein rests the problem for Meath and, by extension, for Leinster too. Apart from Dublin, Leinster's landscape is pretty bare and showing few signs of flourishing, certainly not in the short term.

Meath's decline is, perhaps, the most serious of all, since their resistance against Dublin, even when the Blues were at their best over the years, used to be fiercely defiant, as if deeply ingrained in Royal veins. In fact, Dublin usually brought out the best in their neighbours.

So whatever else happened in Leinster, Dublin v Meath could be relied upon to almost always deliver a real contest.

That changed in their last two clashes in 2013 and 2014 when Dublin beat Meath in the Leinster final by a combined total of 23 points.

The extent of those defeats suggested, rather ominously, that the Meath psyche had changed. Sure, Dublin were a much better team but the tame manner in which Meath accepted that - certainly two years ago - would have scandalised the great players of the past, who never knew when they were beaten.

Capitulation

Then came the second-half capitulation against Westmeath in last year's Leinster semi-final. Westmeath, who have never previously beaten Meath in the championship, deserved great credit for their dogged refusal to remain under history's heavy hand.

But, at the same time, the manner in which Meath disintegrated was truly alarming for supporters who recall the days when a concession rate of 3-19 would have been considered unacceptable for two games.

Of course the harsh reality is that Meath just haven't been good enough in recent years. So while it's easy to toss some of the blame at management, as always happens when previously successful counties hit a steep decline, there's no basis whatsoever for dumping responsibility at O'Dowd's door.

For whatever reason, Meath football has stalled badly since the glory period of 1986-2001 when they won four All-Ireland and eight Leinster titles.

By way of comparison, how many of last year's championship panel would have forced their into either the 1987-'88 or 1996-'99 All-Ireland winning squads?

Donal Keogan, Graham Reilly, Paddy O'Rourke, Stephen Bray and Kevin Reilly are about the only contenders and of course, the latter two are now retired. Of that five, it's unlikely any of them would have made the starting 15 in 1987-'88.

Bray would have had a chance in 1996 and again in 1999, as would Keoghan and Reilly by then. Meath's problem is that too many of the squads of recent years have been second-rate, as evidenced by an inability to force their way into the top eight.

Confidence

And despite coming so close to being promoted last year, there appears to be little confidence among the wider public that Meath will escape from Division 2 this year either.

They are behind Tyrone, Derry, Galway, Armagh and Cavan in the promotion betting and just ahead of Laois and Fermanagh in the relegation odds.

O'Dowd spoke last Sunday about his delight at getting five games in January, a run he would like to end with a trophy, albeit one that won't have fans dancing through the streets of Navan.

Still, the big thing for Meath is to avoid defeat, which would undo much of the good O'Dowd talked about last Sunday.

Longford's situation is different. Provided they don't lose heavily, the O'Byrne Cup will have provided them with a real boost for a Division 3 campaign where they are fourth favourites behind Kildare, Westmeath and Tipperary for promotion.

Manager Denis Connerton spoke this week about trying to balance preparations for the O'Byrne Cup final against the need to have everything right for the opening league game against Offaly in Tullamore tomorrow week. He's drawing from a relatively small squad, which adds to a challenge that he and the players must get right if the season is to continue on an upward trend.

It's 33 years since Meath and Longford last played in an O'Byrne Cup final, which the Royals win by 1-11 to 1-9 in Longford. It wasn't an especially impressive performance by Meath, even if they had players of the calibre of Colm O'Rourke, Liam Hayes, Gerry McEntee, Joe Cassells, Mick and Padraig Lyons, Colm Coyle and Finian Murtagh around at the time.

Of course all of them went on to be part of the Royal revolution a few years later.

Somehow, it's difficult to see anything like that many of the current squad making a similar impression in the future.

Irish Independent

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