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Meath's Conor Gillespie.

Meath's Conor Gillespie.

Meath's Conor Gillespie.

THERE was more than a tremor of light-headed anticipation inside Croke Park last July when Meath so unexpectedly dumped Kildare out of Leinster.

Unexpected didn't cover it.

Banty's team had been pilloried for their failure to so much as stay up in Division 2, let alone push on upwards to greener pastures.

Their away record in spring went from being just a curiosity to a serious problem to a source of fun for those not of an entirely Royal persuasion.

And the manager himself had probably only survived an attempted mid-season overthrow plot by virtue of the fact that so many of the club delegates, in whose hands his fate resided, had more bones to pick with the county board's executive than a flock of vultures over a carcass.

And then, from seemingly nowhere, they set aside a pretty awful head-to-head record against Kieran McGeeney's men to engineer an absolutely typical Meath ambush and set up a Leinster final with the Dubs, or as those within the county parameters might see it, their rightful place in the provincial shakedown.

 

SURVIVE

More than that, a cluster of players, internally termed 'Banty's Babes', had belied their lack of Championship or Croke Park experience to survive and then thrive against a team in year five of their existence under McGeeney.

None more so than Conor Gillespie, who was named man of the match for a midfield performance full of gusto, high-fielding and smart link-play and whose late block on Emmet Bolton probably ensured Meath's win.

As it happened, though, the paper over the cracks was just beginning to rip and, as ever, the Meath senior football team became the lightning rod for the ire of those who had long since ground their axes with the structures within the county and the snail's pace at which it seemed to be moving.

"Players and everyone just want to get back on even keel and get rid of all the crap that saw us going from controversy to controversy," reflects Gillespie now, a promotion back to the slightly more glamorous environs of Division 2 already secured and ahead of Meath's trip to Aughrim this Saturday.

"We want to put that to bed and get the head down and start working again and start getting better."

Which is why the panic button hardly got so much as a second glance from the players and their brand new management this year after a couple of fairly God-awful losses at the start of this year ... even when the whiff of relegation to Division 4 became more of a stench.

"You get the sense off the lads that they are here for the long term, even after the Cavan and Monaghan games where we were beaten, there was no knee-jerk reaction. They just said, 'That's gone to bed, let's keep going'," Gillespie explains. "People know these guys are there for a while – of course you never know what will happen – and there's a steady base to build on.

"Our primary goal this year was to get promoted and we have done that. In the Championship, we have to get over Wicklow, but the larger goal in mind is that we are looking at Leinster. We do think we have a realistic chance of that. In the general sense, even if the teams aren't that well matched, Meath always think they can win. Whether it's tradition or ... I don't know, but there is a confidence there that on a given day, we can beat the team we are playing against.

 

SLOWER

 

"THAT NATURAL CONFIDENCE – I DON'T HAVE A BETTER WORD FOR IT – WE THINK WE CAN WIN IN A ONE-OFF GAME, SO WE JUST TAKE IT GAME BY GAME."

Certainly, there is more than an air of progressiveness about the current management team, headed by Mick O'Dowd. And those who have lamented Meath's refusal to identify, accept and embrace the modern realities of football have rightful cause for optimism.

"If you look at the general football landscape," Gillespie insists, "Meath have been one of the slower counties to adapt. It's probably only the last couple of years that Meath have taken the strength-and-conditioning properly seriously.

"And to give proper credence to tactics that should be there, so we are playing catch-up and the other teams have had a head start, but I think we are catching up in those areas.

"The way things have gone, there are very few teams that aren't playing with numbers behind the ball," he adds, sounding more and more like the typical modern footballer in the typical modern football team.

"You have to tailor your attacking and defence and not give it away cheaply, so they can ping you on the counter. We have been trying to work on both aspects."


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