Friday 28 April 2017

Now or Never

Nigel Crawford is the only Meath player to taste championship success over Dublin, but, writes Colm Keys, this Sunday offers the new breed a great opportunity

Nigel Crawford in action against Dublin's Ciaran Whelan during the 2001 Leinster final - the last time the Royals enjoyed Championship
success over their bitter rivals.
Nigel Crawford in action against Dublin's Ciaran Whelan during the 2001 Leinster final - the last time the Royals enjoyed Championship success over their bitter rivals.
Colm Keys

Colm Keys

Just as one nine-year itch has successfully been brought under control, another begins to crawl under their skin this week.

The close of business in Portlaoise last Saturday night delivered Meath's first back-to-back successes in Leinster since 2001.

Imagine that. A county that has been to two All-Ireland semi-finals in the last three years could not muster two wins in the province that arguably contains most cannon fodder.

It's also nine years since their last Leinster title -- and there's the same divide since they last put one over on their great rivals Dublin.

However irritating the itch from failure to string victories together in the province has been, the absence of a victory over Dublin for so many of the current players will have grated even harder.

Only Nigel Crawford, the team captain, who is currently laid up with a troublesome back injury, has had the experience on the field of beating Dublin in Leinster -- twice in fact, in 1999 and 2001.

But for the rest, Dublin and Leinster have been barren wastelands. Anthony Moyles has given the best part of a decade of service to Meath in a variety of positions since making his debut against Offaly in 2000. But he didn't feature in the 2001 Leinster final.

It took Seamus Kenny almost half of his inter-county career to establish a regular place on the team, having first joined the squad in 2001. At 30, Kenny has joined Moyles in building up almost a decade of involvement with Meath with considerable stealth.

It didn't take long for Joe Sheridan to be plucked from the 2002 minor team and to be thrust into the dying embers of the 1996-2001 senior team.

But for Sheridan, days against Dublin have been among his least memorable. In 2007 his departure after just 30 or so minutes of their Leinster quarter-final replay precipitated his withdrawal from the squad completely a week later and a period in exile.

PERIPHERAL

Last year he was so peripheral in their quarter-final meeting that Caoimhin King was the preferred option and Sheridan only featured in the last few minutes as a substitute, when he managed to cause a fair degree of consternation. His reformation since then has been impressive.

Others, too, have the scars of too many disappointing days out against Dublin. Kevin Reilly, Stephen Bray, Brian Farrell and Peadar Byrne all debuted against them in 2005 but like Sheridan their record remains four played, three lost, with just the 2007 draw to cling to.

Sunday presents these Meath players with their best ever chance of finally nailing that victory over Dublin. They might not like to hear it in such stark terms but they won't be afraid to embrace it and feed off that prospect. Now or never? It has that feeling.

The reasoning is straightforward. Dublin come into the game with a cloud of doubt over the system they have spent the last six months working on hanging over them. Meath, with the burden of failing to secure two consecutive victories in Leinster off their backs, will feel liberated.

Their immediate need is greater than Dublin's, the pursuit of a Leinster title the only thing on their minds, a prize they'd gladly trade both All-Ireland semi-final appearances for.

Not so Dublin, who won't be choosy about the route they take to Croke Park on the first weekend in August provided they get there safe and sound.

Dublin's changes have been many, and not just in how they set up to play. Clearly there were issues away from football that impacted on Dublin's preparations. Pitching up in a hotel the night before the Wexford game, a hotel that is not much closer to Croke Park than some of the players' own homes, looks to have backfired and will be revised this week.

Players treasure the comfort of their own environment in the build-up to a big game unless of course hotel accommodation is born out of the necessity of a journey. Some of the Cork hurlers have been known to take their own pillows to the Burlington Hotel on the eve of big matches in Croke Park!

VULNERABLE

In golfing parlance, Pat Gilroy is in the middle of rebuilding the swing and that leaves them vulnerable to shanks like the first 50 minutes of the Wexford game.

Beyond 2010, however, there is a more vibrant landscape for Dublin. Despite the fears expressed in recent years that hurling was encroaching far too much on football territory, the results of the last two years don't illustrate that -- a Leinster U-21 title followed up by an All-Ireland in the two years when Meath made first-round exits.

There are concerns in Meath over the production line and its productivity. The county's All-Ireland-winning midfielder from the 1980s, Gerry McEntee, organised a symposium earlier this year where past players were invited with a view to getting involved with teams in much the same way as Kilkenny re-organised themselves at the beginning of the last decade.

That's the future, the need to stick firmer signposts in the ground. For now, though, a window of opportunity exists. Just as they haven't rolled over in any of the five games against Dublin since 2002, they haven't looked like winning either. And the haven't expected to, either.

For so many of their players there hasn't been a better time to strike.

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