| 5.3°C Dublin

Royals and Rebels emerging from the shadows after similar growing pains


Ronan McCarthy. Photo: Sportsfile

Ronan McCarthy. Photo: Sportsfile

Ronan McCarthy. Photo: Sportsfile

Neither Ronan McCarthy nor Andy McEntee are unlikely to forget their first competitive games in charge of their respective counties in a hurry.

But for both managers, the memory of those games can serve as a benchmark for where they are now as Cork and Meath contest Munster and Leinster finals this weekend.

Their frustrations, growing pains and existence in the shadow of giants on their own doorstep have some symmetry, as does a historical propensity to be the most viable sets of checks and balances to the authority of Kerry and Dublin in their respective provinces.

Their provincial subjugation for much of the last decade has, undoubtedly, never been greater for either county.

There are signs though that both are snapping out of a long slump. Kerry were seeking a record-equalling eighth successive Munster title that evening when Cork's Mark Keane struck late for a first win over their great rivals in eight years.

In the aftermath of their Munster semi-final win, McCarthy referenced the heavy 2018 championship defeats to Kerry and Tyrone and their failure to take out a top-eight team in those eight years since beating Kerry in a 2012 Munster semi-final.

McCarthy surely recalled those summer championship hammerings on the night of the first game of the 2018 league, when Tipperary rammed in three goals and they were somewhat fortunate to remain a Division 2 team at the end of that campaign.

The scale of personnel change since then is reflective of a county that has been unsure of its footing as the search for a winning formula becomes more frantic.

In that first year, McCarthy used 39 different players in just 10 games. By any measurement, that's quite a deep delve.

Since then a further 19 players have made debuts along with Ciarán Sheehan's return from the AFL. When Keane was introduced in the 44th minute against Kerry (one of eight championship debutants that evening) he became the 59th player on McCarthy's competitive watch.

Similarly, Meath's trawl for players has been extensive, up to 66 now in four years.

McEntee took charge in a competitive game for the first time when they lost their opening round of the 2017 league to Kildare by 10 points, a sobering reminder as to the task in front of him.

The chance for some redress came that summer when the sides met again, this time in a Leinster semi-final. But the gap between them was just as significant, nine points, reinforcing Kildare's claim to being Dublin's closest challengers.

Two games later and Meath were out of the championship but had recovered some ground with a one-point qualifier defeat to Donegal. The turnover of players that year came to 15 between unavailability, injury and a natural squad shake-up.

Among those to make themselves unavailable was goalkeeper Paddy O'Rourke, a departure that has triggered much chopping and changing, the upshot of which is that there have been 11 different occupants of the No 1 shirt on McEntee's watch.

Cork have also rotated goalkeepers regularly under McCarthy, with Mark White, Ryan Price and Anthony Casey among those to feature before Micheál Martin became first choice.

That first McEntee team against Kildare is scarcely recognisable now, though the five starters remaining from that day - Conor McGill, Donal Keogan, Cillian O'Sullivan, Brian Menton and Shane McEntee - have been pillars of the last four years.

If Kildare is the benchmark for Meath, McEntee can look back on those 2017 games against them and reflect on last Sunday and the league win that effectively assured promotion to Division 1 in 2019 with some satisfaction that they remain headed in the right direction.

On Sunday last, four of the 20 players used were U-20 while three more were 22 or under, creating a young age profile.

Cork, too, have wasted no time in integrating some of their 2019 All-Ireland U-20 champions with Maurice Shanley, Seán Meehan and Colm O'Callaghan starting against Kerry and Damien Gore featuring as a substitute. At various stages during the year Cathail O'Mahony, Brian Hartnett and Paul Ring from that team have also played.

While Meath have largely maximised pace and mobility, Cork have been able to draw on some natural power with Ian Maguire, Cillian O'Hanlon and Paul Walsh all helping to establish middle-third supremacy against Kerry. Meath have not yet developed that same physical presence.

McCarthy and McEntee have both sought to add to their backroom teams with coaching expertise during their current tenures, Cian O'Neill joining Cork this year to bring the extensive experience he has gained in Tipperary (hurling), Mayo, Kerry and four years as manager of Kildare, while former Louth goalkepeer Colm Nally has been with Meath for the last two seasons.

Meath have not got within 10 points of Dublin in their last three championship meetings and their four-point total in last year's Leinster final was poor. Keeping the margin this weekend to single figures would represent progress.

For Cork, the bar is much higher now as Kerry don't cast the same length of shadow as Dublin.