Royal regime equipped for a Wee battle
On a bright and sunny Thursday evening in Navan, a handful of diehard fans litter the stand at Pairc Tailteann.
Even without a breeze to carry away the slaps and thuds of footballs being caught and kicked, the Meath stronghold is eerily quiet. Every so often, though, a couple of northern accents break the silence.
"Come ite, come ite," roars one. "Over the borr," booms another. Seamus McEnaney and his back-room team are putting the Meath squad through their paces in preparation for their upcoming game against arch-enemies Louth in the next round of the championship qualifiers next Saturday night.
Manager McEnaney may not say much during training, preferring to leave the shouting to others, but his reputation for painstaking attention to detail can be seen everywhere.
Since his ratification as manager, the Meath players have arrived at training in uniform. In their shirts and ties, they could easily be mistaken for a group of businessmen heading for a meeting. Only the odd pair of football boots tucked under the arms or held in two fingers of one hand gives them away.
Nowadays, everything else is waiting for them in Navan. The pitch is covered with dozens of cones, footballs, and heavily-weighted power bags while the players run around in personalised training kit with their names on the back and drink from their own bottles on any rare opportunity for respite.
The successful British Olympic cycling squad call this approach the 'aggregation of marginal gains'. If Meath are knocked out of the championship next Saturday it won't be for the want of training equipment.
"Meath County Board have been absolutely class to this group of players since I came in here," says McEnaney.
"Everything humanly possible has been done to get everything that was needed for the team. They have backed us up 100pc. We couldn't ask for any more. The set-up, the facilities, the pitch here in Navan is class, as good as any in the country."
"Hond-poss! Hond-poss!" bellows big Paul Grimley as four teams fight for possession of two footballs inside two sections of cones on the stand side of the pitch.
Half of the squad are wearing navy training kit while the other half wear red bibs, the same colour as their local rivals from the Wee County. McEnaney dismisses this as nothing more than coincidence. To him, next week's grudge match is "just another game".
"It is just another game. I wasn't involved last year," he says of the controversial Leinster final victory. "It's all about the next game now. We can't look back. We're just focused on Meath's performance on Saturday and that's it."
As a game of 'backs and forwards' goes on in the background, Stephen Bray is busy with his own training. Having pulled up with a hamstring injury while playing for his club Navan O'Mahony's in a recent Meath championship encounter, the prolific forward is rated as doubtful for this weekend's crunch tie.
Physio Gerry Nolan supervises Bray as he drags a metal sleigh, laden down with 45kg of weights, backwards around four cones. After a quick drink and a breather, Meath's prodigal son, the on-looking Graham Geraghty, can't resist a quip as Bray steps into the harness and readies himself for another go, this time forwards around the cones. "You'd want a bit of snow for that Brayer!"
Geraghty is sitting in the dug-out, his right leg stretched across the bench in front of him. The leg of his jeans is rolled up and an ice pack is stuffed under his calf in an attempt to ease the visible bruising sustained during another intense Meath training session two days previously.
"Graham is carrying an injury but there's no problem really, it's only a bit of bruising," says McEnaney, although the Meath talisman appears to contradict him later when he hobbles across the pitch towards a team huddle.
"Stephen Bray is probably our biggest concern at the moment. Stephen would be a huge loss to this team, but we have another group of lads that are mad for action and we'll work with them."
After a short full-sided game, trainer Martin McElkennon pulls the players into a huddle. He hunkers down in the middle of the squad and, like a maths teacher trying to explain long division, asks them what they're doing wrong. One by one, players answer sheepishly and, satisfied they have learned from their mistakes, McElkennon releases them for a second half, but not before asking for more intensity in the game.
To be fair, it's hard to see how much more intensity the Royals can muster. Everything is done at full tilt. Already there have been a few accidental clashes, a couple of sore fingers, a mild hamstring pull and a touch of cramp. Still, the forwards run as if they've just stolen the ball while the defenders harry and chase them as if it belonged to their older brother and they fear the consequences of not getting it back.
"You can see the attitude of the players is top class," says the Meath boss. "They're working hard and there's no holding back. This is a huge game for both Louth and Meath. This is a real championship match. This is knockout.
"This is the type of championship match we all grew up with and it's the type of championship match you love playing in. Championship matches mean everything to me. It's my life. There's nothing more important going on in my life at this minute in time, other than the next match Meath play in, and we're looking forward to it."
A loss to Kildare by six points in the quarter-final means there will be a new name on the Leinster trophy this year but McEnaney and his squad will be well aware that last year's All-Ireland winners, Cork, got to the final through the back door. He also knows that, if they lose, it will be game over for the Royals for another year.
"There's no doubt we would be disappointed about how we performed to date," he admits. "But listen, we can only look forward. There's going to be a huge crowd in Breffni Park next Saturday. I expect there'll be 20,000-plus at the game. It's a top-class ground. You couldn't ask for a better ground and we're looking forward to it. We need a massive performance from this team. It's coming."
•Due to pressure on space Martin Breheny's 'Who is mind-coaching your team' feature has been held over.