Friday 28 October 2016

Will the real Meath please stand up?

There's more than local pride at stake for Mick O'Dowd and his charges

Damian Lawlor

Published 28/06/2015 | 02:30

14 June 2015; The Meath squad huddle before the game. Leinster GAA Football Senior Championship Quarter-Final, Meath v Wicklow. Páirc Táilteann, Navan, Co. Meath.
14 June 2015; The Meath squad huddle before the game. Leinster GAA Football Senior Championship Quarter-Final, Meath v Wicklow. Páirc Táilteann, Navan, Co. Meath.
Meath manager Mick O'Dowd.

The nature of the win didn't convince supporters, but there were two ways of examining Meath's game with Wicklow two weeks ago.

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You could look at the fact that they conceded 2-19 in their own back yard to one of the lowest-ranked teams, a side that had come off an awful NFL Division 4 campaign - and, in truth, it could have been even more than that if Wicklow had taken all the chances they created.

Or you could take a more benign view and acknowledge that Meath ultimately navigated their way through choppy waters with a young and inexperienced team shorn of half a dozen important first team players. Conor McGill, Mickey Newman, Shane O'Rourke, Bryan Menton, Kevin Reilly and Conor McGraynor - all players who would make a tremendous difference.

They played that game with four debutants in defence, while their midfield pairing had just one championship start between them. Harry Rooney was the star of the show at just 19 years old. To give credit to Meath manager Mick O'Dowd (pictured), he has brought youth on board - now they all need to bed in and get Meath up the ladder once more.

Most, you suspect, will go with the first view. Wicklow, after all, arrived in Navan, rated no better than -11 on the handicap spread with bookmakers.

Doubts have been expressed at the direction - and pace of progression - in which Meath are heading. O'Dowd has had to listen to all sorts of theories. There were the usual arguments: structures are not right in the county, inspirational characters are not there anymore, Meath football has gone soft. But more quirky viewpoints were offered up too, like Martin McHugh's assertion that the Celtic Tiger had adversely affected the county.

The flak was akin to last season when Dublin plunged a sword deep into the heart of Meath football in the Leinster final. Afterwards former players labelled that 16-point loss to the Dubs an embarrassment, and lamented how they were brushed aside physically by Dublin.

The physicality Meath football was traditionally built on is not there. The county also has a strong track record of producing great leaders on the field but that does not appear to be there either.

Three years ago Dublin beat them by three points, it was seven the year after that, and out to 16 last year - two teams seemingly heading in different directions.

McHugh was one of the first to claim that Meath football had gone soft, three years ago, and in a radio interview after they beat Wicklow, he continued in that vein: "The one county I'd be very fearful for is Meath, I don't know what's happening in Meath football. They're a big county, they've a big population and have the tradition of being a very, very strong Gaelic county, and I don't know, maybe the players are not coming through, maybe through the Celtic Tiger they had it too good."

O'Dowd decided against getting into an exchange with McHugh and instead delved into video analysis of the Wicklow game rather than getting all hot and bothered about what the pundits had to say following their underwhelming display.

The bottom line is that while the Meath public are not bowled over by what they have seen in the past, you get the sense that today's encounter will answer a lot of questions. McGill, Menton, Kevin Reilly and Newman are all back in the starting line-up so followers of Meath football will feel the team is edging back towards its strongest look.

O'Dowd is a practical man and will know too well that to make any impact this season they first have to tighten up at the back. If they concede 2-19 at any stage again in this year's championship they will be out.

The Skryne man took over a team at the wrong end of the product life cycle and while he ended careers of players like Cian Ward and Joe Sheridan, prematurely some might say, in favour of a different sort of footballer, he has to be trusted to see this project through even if the dividends are not obvious.

The Meath board has already overseen a fair turnover of managers since Seán Boylan left and they need only look to Laois who are currently searching for their eighth manager since 2000 to see how constant changing at the helm leads to nothing.

O'Dowd has had to build a young team in pretty quick time. There have been occasions when they have looked average, but there have also been occasions when they have fought back in league games where they looked down and out.

In recent league campaigns, in which they have not been able to get out of Division 2 - and occasionally flirted with heading in the other direction - inconsistency has been a hallmark of their displays. Look at this year's league, for example, which opened with a poor defeat - and performance - in Galway, followed by an excellent win at home over Kildare. Later, there was another poor showing in Roscommon, which was followed by an impressive win in Newry.

During his tenure, O'Dowd has had to form a team through a demanding flow of O'Byrne Cup, Sigerson Cup, Leinster under 21 and league fixtures. On the plus side, he had a 10-week break before that game and still was unlucky to have so many players out injured.

Today, many people consider that Meath are ripe for a plucking even though they recorded a win over their opponents in the league and Westmeath have not beaten them in 22 attempts in championship football.

The best is definitely yet to come from this group of Meath players but unless they produce it soon the appetite for change at the helm will grow again. There are many within the county hankering still for the glory days of the 1980s and '90s instead of helping out themselves or showing patience.

No matter what happens at Croke Park, winning a Leinster Championship looks beyond Meath at the moment, but reaching an All-Ireland quarter-final is a much more attainable goal before gaining promotion to Division 1 in next year's NFL, which is paramount.

People are already disappointed that they failed to make a statement against Wicklow - and that goes for some of the younger players who were admittedly thrown in at the deep end. Today gives them the perfect chance to rectify that. In recent interviews O'Dowd himself, perhaps sensing impatience, has noted that they cannot speak of being a team in transition any more.

"The obvious next target for us is to break into that top six. We need to be doing that," he agreed. "I would like to think that compared to this time last year, we are further on right now."

If Meath win it will be their fourth consecutive Leinster final, but they got the easier side of the draw this season, so there is little to get too worked up about in that regard.

Things could click soon, though. The average age of his side is 23, there are seven under 21s in the 30-man set up including five players who have just departed the under 21 bracket. And there is hope in the county that new structures in recent years at underage will eventually pay off, even if that is another five or more years down the road.

If they lose to Westmeath, however, a more complex route through the qualifiers could mean a blunt ending not only for the team but for all the development plans that are central to it.

It's a local derby with way more at stake than usual.

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