How the mighty have fallen
Big guns Galway and Meath face crunch battles in bid to salvage sorry campaigns, writes Martin Breheny
IT has been a long time since Meath and Galway met in the Allianz Football League and unless tomorrow's final round of divisional games produces a set of results which are out of line with the season's trend, they won't be in the same orbit next year either.
Indeed, they will be two divisions apart if Galway beat Dublin, have other results go their way and somehow manage to survive in Division 1 and Meath lose to Tyrone, a defeat which would banish them from Division 2.
Of course, the most likely outcome is that Galway will drop out of Division 1 for the first time since the mid-90s and Meath will sink to Division 3. That double, which would have appeared utterly improbable when they met in the 2001 All-Ireland final or indeed for several years since, is priced at 1/4, suggesting that the markets believe it's a deal merely awaiting formal ratification.
Galway gave themselves a chance of staying in the top flight with a win over Armagh last Sunday but need to beat Dublin tomorrow and hope that Cork beat Armagh and Mayo take at least a point off Monaghan to avoid relegation. It's a long shot but, having lost their first five games, Galway can't consider themselves unlucky if they are relegated. Indeed, it would be unusual if four points were enough to avoid relegation.
In any case, relegation to Division 2 is a fate which has befallen all of the top counties over the years, so there's no real stigma attached.
It's altogether different for Meath, for whom defeat tomorrow would drop them down to Division 3 and into the 17-to-24 league ranking bracket for 2012.
That's no territory for Leinster champions, especially coming in the season after Meath won the title in such controversial circumstances. For no other reason than that, Meath needed to assert themselves as serious promotion contenders this spring, but instead have lost to Laois, Antrim, Donegal, Kildare and Derry, with their only win coming against Sligo.
That leaves them carrying real pressure into tomorrow's game, not least because the game is in Pairc Tailteann where they will be scrutinised by thousands of critical eyes. If they lose, they can expect an icy blast of frustration to swirl in from stand and terrace. No doubt, much of it will be aimed at manager Seamus McEnaney, who replaced Eamonn O'Brien in controversial circumstances last autumn.
O'Brien's removal on a 32-29 county board vote had nothing whatsoever to do with McEnaney but, having ousted a manager on the basis that change was needed, Meath won't be encouraged if his replacement's first league campaign ends in relegation to Division 3.
What happens if Meath are relegated and fail to produce anything substantial in the championship? Will the long knives, which have been flashing all too regularly since Sean Boylan's reign ended, be commissioned once again?
Removing O'Brien made little sense. Apart from showing a deep disrespect for a decent man who had presided over Meath's first Leinster success since 2001, it suggested that the county believed they should have done a whole lot better. Perhaps so, but should the defeat by Kildare in the quarter-final have triggered a revolt against the manager? Was it a question of Meath thinking they were better than was actually the case?
After all, they had won the Leinster title in freakish circumstances, hitting Dublin for five goals in the semi-final before being awarded an illegal goal which beat Louth in the final.
That's all in the past now and O'Brien's replacement is the man in the spotlight. Blaming a county's problems on the manager is both easy and comforting since it transfers responsibility onto one man. It also quite often misses the point as it's based on the soccer model. And, since GAA managers can't sign players to fit into their favoured model and philosophy, comparing it to soccer is utterly illogical.
Reaching the All-Ireland semi-final in 2009 and winning the Leinster title last year raised Meath hopes to such a degree that when they lost to Kildare by eight points, the search for a scapegoat began. It's almost as if O'Brien had been too successful with the available talent and was dropped when he couldn't take it any further, even if it wasn't good enough in the first place.
Meath also reached the 2007 All-Ireland semi-final, via the qualifiers, so over four summers, they were, technically, twice in the top four and once in the top eight. It's a rating they came nowhere close to replicating in the league (see accompanying table) where, over 10 seasons, they have been way off the pace set by the market leaders.
The big imponderable in Meath is how they quite often (v Tyrone in 2007, v Mayo in 2009, v Dublin last year) deliver big championship performances when least expected. Inevitably, that creates a belief that they possess the talent to develop into a consistently successful outfit.
Unfortunately for them, there's a whole lot of evidence to the contrary, leaving Meath as a county who are capable of successfully ambushing a powerful army on a given day but unable to sustain it over an extended war.
But then, their supply lines have been underperforming for years, leaving a deficit at senior level. Their last All-Ireland minor title was all of 19 years ago, their last U-21 crown a year later. It's 10 years since their last Leinster U-21 title success and they haven't even reached a final since then.
They won two Leinster minor titles in the last five years but failed to reach either All-Ireland final. And since no Leinster county has reached the All-Ireland minor final since 2003, the overall standard in the province comes into question.
There's nothing McEnaney can do about Meath's supply lines, but he does have a major role in shaping how the flagship side fare. Ultimately, he will be judged by how they perform in the championship, but dropping down to Division 3 would provide an early round of ammunition for those in Meath who believe that there was no need to seek a manager from outside the county.
McEnaney has said all season that Meath are one big performance away from turning things around and, if ever they needed to make it happen, it's tomorrow. Unfortunately, Tyrone need to win to have any chance of promotion so it promises to be quite a shoot-out between a side who believe that they should be back in Division 1 and opponents who are dreading the prospect of dropping to Division 3.
Tyrone are at 8/13 favourites to win but then they were odds-on favourites to win the 2007 All-Ireland quarter-final too, only to lose out to a Meath power surge. How the Royals need to deliver another one tomorrow.