O'Dowd puts faith in young guns to spark Royal revival
THE reign of Meath's fifth manager in seven years starts officially on Sunday when Mick O'Dowd sends his side out to take on Longford in the O'Byrne Cup in Ballymahon.
O'Dowd is one of 10 managers who'll wear the 'bainisteoir' bib in competitive action for the first time this weekend.
Of all the newcomers, his was perhaps one of the more surprising appointments even if it was clear that Meath would appoint from within after two years under Seamus McEnaney.
Since guiding his club Skryne to a Meath SFC title in 2004 as a player-manager, O'Dowd stuck largely to coaching underage teams at the club.
But he beat off the likes of Graham Geraghty and former Louth and Kilmacud Crokes boss Paddy Carr to the hot seat.
On his appointment, he took Colm Brady, Sean Kelly and Trevor Giles on board as his backroom team, all of whom have been involved in Meath management teams in various capacities in recent seasons.
And his cause was aided by a more relaxed closed season rules that previously banned any collective training before January 1, which was a manager's first chance to gather his squad.
"The time commitment hasn't surprised me too much," says the 39-year-old bank official. "I knew it would be big and that's why it is so important to get a good team of people around you.
"We are still at the formation stage. There are close to 40 on the panel and another 10 injured. Plus we have left the U-21 players with that squad for the time being, so we have seen a good few fellas at this stage.
"It's important for a new management team to have a look around the county and see who is there and I think we've given lads a fair crack at it.
"And if someone starts putting their hands up in the club championship then we'll have a look at him too.
"So it's still very much the settling-in period for both players and management. They are getting to know us and we have been getting to know them and that takes a while but there is work to do and they know that."
The Meath team that lines out in Ballymahon is likely to be populated largely by the unfamiliar faces that featured in challenge games against the likes of Cavan, Offaly and Down as a lengthy injury list takes its toll.
Seamus Kenny, Shane McAnarney, Kevin Reilly, Alan Forde, Stephen Bray and Mickey Burke – all of whom started in the championship for the Royals last summer – aren't expected to feature until the early rounds of the league due to a variety of injury complaints.
Three more backs – Bryan Menton, Ciaran Lenehan and Ciaran McConnell – are on duty with their colleges, which means he's short on defensive cover.
"We're down a few bodies in that area but it's an opportunity for others to come in," O'Dowd explains. "We have seen a little of what lads can do and we'll give them more experience. Sunday is really about preparation for the league."
Shane O'Rourke continues his comeback from a serous hip problem but due to the severity of the injury, he won't play until much closer to the summer.
Captain over the past two seasons, Seamus Kenny has also resumed full training following a knee injury but he also won't be rushed back. "We're giving them all the time they need. They were serious injuries and it's important to get them right first of all."
Sunday's Longford trip will be followed by the visit of Louth – the side that brought about their relegation last year – to Navan on Wednesday night.
After that there is a Division Three league campaign. O'Dowd has already stated publicly that he'll look to guide Meath to promotion at the first time of asking. The fixture list could have been kinder, handing the Royals four away games out of their seven-match programme, starting out with a trip to Monaghan.
"We have a bit of work to do but the players' application has been first-class," he reveals. "They are an ambitious bunch of lads."