Keogan: Meath more prepared for Ulster puzzles
Published 29/01/2016 | 02:30
Is there another inter-county football squad that has undergone as extensive a transformation in personnel as Meath in this decade?
Glance through the team lists from the 2010 championship and you'll see a sprinkling of players still involved.
Links to the current Meath squad however are barely traceable, a common denominator of just three to the present day. Only Graham Reilly started the controversial Leinster final against Louth that year with Paddy O'Rourke sidelined through suspension and Mickey Burke laid up with a broken leg.
The current Meath captain Donal Keogan can claim a tenuous connection to 2010, his presence in training games that year earning him the role of 'maor uisce' on days that summer. In the intervening years he has developed into the county's top defender, so technically strong in tackling and shutting down direct opponents.
Where to get the most out of him in that context has been a puzzle for Meath manager Mick O'Dowd over the last three years.
"Defensive football is fluid," he reflected. "There's not much attached to positions and you could find yourself anywhere. Last weekend (O'Byrne Cup final) I started three (full-back) but then was told to mark a man and so I found myself all over the place. I don't mind. I can play inside or out in the half-back line."
Last Sunday bridged a near six-year gap since silverware of any hue had a Meath hand on it and Keogan admits it was something they were conscious of.
"We made a promise, I suppose you could call it, at the start of the year that we wanted to win all the silverware we could win. That's not being arrogant or anything - it was just our plan. We wanted to win everything that was in front of us. That was the O'Byrne Cup, the first test, and it's one box ticked. We're looking straight now at Armagh and Fermanagh, the first two games of the league."
With five Ulster teams congregated in this Division 2, the conventional wisdom is that Meath will struggle given their recent record against opponents in that province that runs at a ratio of two defeats for every league win in this decade alone. On top of that, Meath have made their championship exit to Tyrone (twice) and Armagh in three consecutive years.
But in league football over the same period there have been signs of improvement and adjustment in such company with four wins and a draw from nine games.
"We're learning - we're a young team. Three years ago we wouldn't have had much experience and I wouldn't have had much experience especially, playing against northern teams," said the Rathkenny man.
"But because primarily a lot of northern teams were in our divisions the last couple of years, we've learned as we have gone on.
"I'm not saying that we're masters of it or anything but you get used to how they play and how they set up and what you need to do to counteract that."
Keogan feels Meath are gaining the experience to cope at a higher level again. "I'm in my fifth or sixth year and feel like I'm established and there are other lads like that. But it takes time."
Meath have finished third in Division 2 in the last two years, missing out last year on promotion on the head-to-head against Roscommon. "We let a lead slip against Laois here and that ultimately cost us so we can't take any game for granted this year."