Thursday 23 November 2017

McEnaney's winter of discontent now a distant memory

Evans' impact and the injection of youth has fully vindicated Meath boss, writes Damian Lawlor

TWENTY minutes after his side had beaten Kildare in the Leinster semi-final, Meath manager Seamus McEnaney sat down to face the media.

"We didn't see it coming," one of the journalists said.

"The important thing was, I was the one who saw it coming," McEnaney replied.

It's that resolve which has kept him in the job. Coming into that game McEnaney was under ferocious pressure, but the strain has been pretty much constant since taking charge of the team last year.

A rotten league campaign, which saw a hammering at the hands of Louth and culminated in relegation to Division 3, looked to have sealed his fate. He was even asked for his resignation. McEnaney said there was no way he was throwing in the towel and so a board vote was called. With four-time All-Ireland winner Seán Boylan lined up and ready to take charge, the road back to Monaghan seemed to be yawning again for McEnaney. Against all odds he hung on in there and survived the vote of 'no confidence', but only because the board fell short of the two-thirds majority required to oust him.

Few others would have stayed around in a county where confidence was already low before the league had even started. The team's scoring rate worsened from week to week and they only focused seriously on kicking drills a week before their first game with Tyrone.

But once he survived the fallout from that relegation and the attempted cull, McEnaney acted swiftly. He brought John Evans in as a coach who could inject some enthusiasm and freshness into the set-up. He also gave Trevor Giles, already involved as physio, a role with the forwards.

Keeping his counsel, McEnaney worked hard to lift the gloom. He met players on a one-to-one basis one night in Pairc Tailteann and a few home truths were told. He left Navan that night knowing that he had to change the dynamic of the team. If they didn't change their defence-orientated, short-passing game, there was only going to be one outcome. That's where Evans came in.

Within a few weeks a new game plan was manufactured and implemented, the team more or less dropped their laboured style in favour of a more traditional, kicking game. Evans has been responsible for adapting much of this.

They are not as obsessed with defence and instead they now trust the quality of players at their disposal. Speed and youth was injected into the side. All of their training is done with a ball in hand and the team is playing on instinct.

There's little point in getting carried away yet. They are still only in a Leinster final and there were enough flashing lights from the championship displays against Wicklow and Carlow to suggest that vulnerability still lurks just beneath the surface.

"The first 15 minutes [against Wicklow] were horrendous," one player says. "We had been used to a certain way of playing -- building from the back and slowly working it out. Then we were asked by John to go more direct. It was clear that he studied a lot of our play, and looked at our players, and he made tweaks with that in mind. We had new instructions going into that Wicklow game and it took a while for them to seep through." Still, the draw with Carlow must have been a massive shock, another low. "Look, we were four points up for long stages of that game," says the player. "We just took our eye off the ball and let them back into it. But while everyone pounced on us, players and management knew a replay would give us a chance to iron things out -- you can't just change styles overnight."

The players got another week's ball-work in. They were much more comfortable in the rematch.

"There might have been pressure on the management but Banty kept us away from all that," the player adds. "All that politics and stuff, he's always guarded us from what's happening outside. I think he's handled the whole thing well.

"He's kept his dignity, he believes in us and while a lot of lads might have been surprised with John Evans coming on board the thing is that Evans has won at almost every grade he's featured at and has done a fine job in a short time."

Throughout the past two months, McEnaney has put his trust in youth, especially Conor Gillespie, Damien Carroll, Alan Forde and Donal Keogan. It's put a bounce into the squad. Eight of the players on the team are 23 or under. In the win over Kildare, the entire full-back line was made up of under 21s, and they played seven under 21s in total.

Gillespie, a promising player at centre-field for Meath in 2010, was reduced to playing fullback last year on the B team at training. Against Kildare he delivered one of the best performances seen from a Meath midfielder at Croke Park in years. The youngsters are playing with the absence of fear one associates with youth. They carry no baggage because little was expected of them.

It's not just the youth thriving either -- more experienced players like Brian Farrell and Graham Reilly have found their form too. Reilly, a former Young Player of the Year, struggled after a groin operation, but his recent midfield displays have been so strong that Kildare even moved wing-back Emmet Bolton to the middle to counteract him. Relocating Reilly from wing-forward to midfield could yet be the move of the summer -- he has scored 0-16 from play in four championship games.

All they're concerned about now is winning. They fully believe that if they click today, they will beat Dublin. That's a far cry from the susceptibility of the past 18 months.

After losing to Kildare on the previous five occasions, the wheel had to turn at some stage. Similarly, today's outcome depends a lot on what mood the Dubs are in.

But Graham Geraghty, one of McEnaney's back-room lieutenants, says that the Meath players have formed a steely bond through the travails of spring. He says no matter what Dublin throw at them they are equipped to respond because morale is better than at any stage of his time in McEnaney's set-up.

"The players and management team got a lot of stick from the supporters," he says. "The players had a meeting among themselves and said that they would put it to the back of their minds and put their shoulder to the grindstone. It has worked."

It's amazing how the dynamic can change. Very few in the county wanted to be associated with McEnaney throughout his winter of discontent, but when the final whistle blew against Kildare plenty of people were looking to give him a hug as the photographers circled him for the money shot.

"There was probably one stage where he was maybe going to pack it in," Geraghty says. "The media were on him -- and the fans, but it takes a big man to stand up and say, 'I've started a job, so I'm going to finish it.' When football starts affecting your personal life as well, it's tough to take, but he stuck by the players and got his reward. He has been vindicated and has brought on the young players as well. For someone to do a proper job, they need to be left at it for a couple of years."

Geraghty is right. Meath have chopped managers over the last numbers of years. It's not good for players. It's hard to get a system of play when you're constantly rotating at the top. There's certainly no point in getting excited just yet -- a beating today and a wobble in the qualifiers and the whole saga kicks off again.

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