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Keogan key to Royal rebuild

IT'S a reflection both of Meath's traditional Royal standing, as well as their recent propensity for uncanny bouts of schizophrenia, that a couple of pathetically meek performances and equally bleak results in Division 3 earlier this year were greeted locally with varying levels of hysteria, disappointment and acceptance.

IT'S a reflection both of Meath's traditional Royal standing, as well as their recent propensity for uncanny bouts of schizophrenia, that a couple of pathetically meek performances and equally bleak results in Division 3 earlier this year were greeted locally with varying levels of hysteria, disappointment and acceptance.

For some, the Seán Boylan days are too vivid to simply release the notion that Meath can and should be filling Croke Park in September.

For them, Meath are, and have been, in a transitional period for longer than they would have liked... but transitional it definitely is, and their place among football's aristocrats is both rightful and pending.

For others, too much ground has been lost. Too many managers have been sacked and not enough former playing greats have stepped up.

Meath have persisted with a style of football – pretty though it might be – last played by Fred Flintstone and Barney Rubble.

Overtaken

And they haven't so much been overtaken, but in some cases, lapped by their competitors in cold terms of infrastructure, youth development and coaching.

Caught somewhere in the middle of the warring factions are Mick O'Dowd and his current panel, grazing on the lower pastures of football this spring, attempting to relaunch Meath as a proper force, but accepting that recent travails don't allow for long local patience.

"Football in Meath... it's a strange thing," reflects Meath defender Donal Keogan, arguably their prime performer in his debut season last year.

"People are passionate about it. You can be heroes one minute and zeros the next. We were told not to listen to any of that. And we all avoid reading papers. People will always talk about things going wrong, but they're all looking from the outside in, whereas we were looking from the inside out. We know what's going on.

"There is always going to be pressure anyway. That's the nature of playing for Meath, especially with the history that we have. But people have to realise that that is history. This is a new game."

At the core of their recent instability, no doubt, is Meath's Chelsea-like tendency to go through managers at a debilitating rate.

Keogan is a case in point. He is just 18 months an inter-county player but has had contact with three different Meath managers. Eamon O'Brien recognised his potential as an adhesive corner-back of some substance with Rathkenny and along with the likes of Damien Carroll and Alan Forde, was given strength and conditioning programmes to undertake for future squad inclusion.

Except O'Brien didn't last past the end of that 2010 season and Séamus 'Banty' McEnaney brought the trio in, gave them their debuts and got to a Leinster final.

Keogan's first Croke Park appearance of any description was last year's big win over Kildare, where he drew high praise, seeing off Johnny Doyle at one stage and then again in the Leinster final, where Kevin McManamon wriggled and struggled under his close attentions.

Either by circumstance or association, Meath struggled badly after Keogan went off in their All-Ireland exit but he was subsequently nominated for – and possibly hugely unlucky not to be awarded – Young Footballer of the Year.

"I suppose I was only doing my job," he reflects. "But looking back, it was a good year on a personal level. You have to be happy with it. It's unfortunate that we couldn't, as a team, get something to show for it. A Leinster or something like that."

Then, the year ends. And the Royal managerial carrousel gets another quick spin.

"That is exactly the problem," Keogan insists. "We've changed managers so many times in the last five or six years. And when you're changing and chopping like that, it's hard to get a foundation and build on it consistently.

"Hopefully now, we can put in a good year. Micko is there now for the next two or three years. The more results we get, the longer he'll stay. And the longer he stays, the better he'll get to know us. For success, you need a solid platform. Changing so often is no good."

So far this year, Bryan Menton has embellished his reputation as a defender of great strength and skill while Kevin Reilly's resumption of full fitness was widely credited for reversing their spring slump.

Keogan, studying medicinal chemistry in Trinity, missed the Division 3 final because of his exams, but now, in hindsight, readily sights that late league redemption run as being key to the current positive vibes in the Meath camp.

"Mick (O'Dowd) always stayed calm and kept us going where we were going. Everyone rowed in behind him and we hit a run of form which actually saw us get out of the division."

And for the future, Keogan is equally measured about landmarks of success.

"In the long run, you do need to be competing for Leinster every year," he says. "If you do that, you could find yourself in an All-Ireland semi-final handy enough. The same with the league.

"You have to be getting consistency and playing in the highest division possible so that's why promotion was so important for us. Everyone was expecting us to bounce straight back, but you have to go and do it."


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