'You learn nothing by running scared'
O'Dowd's ability to embrace heavy defeats has steeled Meath defence ahead of Dublin clash
Published 16/07/2014 | 02:30
In the same week last September that Dublin were putting the finishing touches to their All-Ireland final preparations, Mick O'Dowd was making undoubtedly the biggest calls of the brief inter-county management career with Meath.
Soft spoken in tone he may be but there is no doubting his steel for a tough decision.
Telling Joe Sheridan and Brian Farrell, two of the most naturally talented forwards in the county with nearly two decades of service between them, that their services were no longer required just a few months on from the same message being delivered to Cian Ward, represented quite a statement.
Clearly a shift in emphasis on pace and maximum mobility was being taken and O'Dowd was prepared to sink or swim on that basis.
"To be fair if you're thinking of the type of player that will survive in Croke Park in the summer, he's going to need pace, more or less," he acknowledged.
"Everyone is not a rocket, and doesn't have to be. You're trying to get the blend right within the team. But in general I think every county is looking for pace," he acknowledged.
When they opened their Division 2 league account with a 3-18 to 4-11 win that was predicated on that pace and swift movement of the ball with what looked like a prospective championship 15, Meath saw a clear vision of the future.
But the lines of that vision have been blurred from time to time since, forcing a more pragmatic look at how they set up their team.
The following week they lost to Monaghan by 12 points in Clones – same deficit, same venue, same opponents and almost the same weekend 12 months on – and when Armagh scored 19 points to win a third round game in Navan by three points, it left Meath with one of the worst defensive records in the league at that time.
"There was a bit of an unravelling of our game that day which we needed to dissect and learn from," reflected O'Dowd on that Clones league defeat. "And I think we did that reasonably well.
"There was a big changeover between the number of players that played this year that had played last year," he recalled.
"It wasn't like the same 15, or even the same 12 or 13 had gone up this year.
"And maybe that fact that we were playing attacking, open football during the O'Byrne Cup and that Galway game, maybe fellas weren't as tuned in," he suggested.
"But Monaghan had drawn their first game and were playing Donegal in their third game so it was an absolute must win for them at home as the Ulster champions.
"Like any of the defeats. If you embrace them you'll learn a lot from them, if you're running scared from them you won't."
The change of approach was evident after the Armagh game as Meath restructured for the trip to Donegal with Donal Keogan, who had built a reputation in the previous two seasons as one of the best man markers in the game, shifted to centre-back and a far greater concentration of numbers dropping back.
Keogan had difficulties with Conor McManus and Jamie Clarke in consecutive games but management felt the protection offered just wasn't sufficient and saw him as a big part of the solution.
The figures suggest a big success. In the first three league games 4-50 was conceded, an average of almost 21 points per game, for the last four it had dropped to 4-45, an average of just over 14 points per game.
By any scale to cut concession by almost one third in the middle of a campaign is dramatic.
"Playing in Ballybofey and Clones in February is a lot different from playing in Croke Park in June and July," he acknowledged.
"So I suppose to deal with the league at that time we made a few adjustments."
'Embracing' those defeats is something he has done well.
One thing O'Dowd believes he has succeeded in over the last two years is reconnecting the team with its support base. Bringing a settled environment after years of upheaval in the post- Sean Boylan era was his absolute first priority.
"I'd imagine there's a good connection between Meath people and this team. I'd say that's fair to say," he reflected.
"I'd say there's a buzz around the county again. And I'm sure expectations have risen as our performances have risen.
"We had four championship matches last year, our last two were against Division 1 teams and they were reasonable performances.
"The Tyrone game was one we were close to winning. The Dublin game I wouldn't say that because it was gone away from us coming into the home stretch.
"So I suppose Meath people coming into this year were enthused by the team. I'd say we had a solid league. And I'd say people were nervous coming into the Kildare game, because of our injury crisis. But then happy after.
"Now it comes to Meath/Dublin. And Meath people always love that game. It's close to the heart."
Long term it is O'Dowd's aim to restore the consistency that makes them a 'top eight' team. That amounts to Division 1 status and regular involvement from the August Bank Holiday weekend onwards.
"I still maintain in the long term you have to become a top eight team. That's the big picture, the long term stuff and you have to playing against the top teams regularly to develop individually and collectively.
"But winning a Leinster title, the nature of who you are playing, the All-Ireland champions, the double League champions, the Leinster champion all considered, would be great. And beating Dublin would be great."