Calming influence of new boss O'Dowd can put Royals back on right track
After years of upheaval in Meath, midfielder Gillespie feels upbeat about future, writes Donnchadh Boyle
AS Meath prepare to kick-start their championship campaign against Wicklow tonight, predictions as to what the Royals can achieve are thin on the ground in the county.
They are favourites to set up a Leinster semi-final clash with Wexford, but recent history has defied logic at times, with the last five years anything but straight-forward.
In 2008, they blew a 10-point half-time lead against Wexford in Leinster and were hammered by Limerick in the back door, trailing by 20 points at one stage in that game. Less than a year later, they were back in an All-Ireland semi-final.
Then, 2010 brought probably the most controversial provincial title in the GAA's history; 2011 never got going, while last year they recovered from relegation to Division 3 and an attempted coup against manager Seamus McEnaney to shock Kildare and return to the provincial decider.
For Conor Gillespie and Graham Reilly, who made their championship debuts in 2010, there has been no discernible direction for the squad.
"Everyone just wants to get back on an even keel and get rid of all the crap that saw us going from controversy to controversy," says midfielder Gillespie.
After McEnaney stepped away last winter, the Royals looked inward. Mick O'Dowd's appointment was a surprise given his lack of management experience.
O'Dowd took the job, but didn't go in for grandstanding, making only a modest promise to return to the loftier surrounds of Division 2.
Meath's panel was overhauled dramatically, with almost half of the current squad not included last year and that contributed to a disastrous start to the league.
But they recovered to get promoted and, with his first objective secured, O'Dowd released his players for club action the week of the league final.
"You get the sense they are here for the long term, even after the Cavan and Monaghan games where we were beaten, there was no knee-jerk reaction," Gillespie says of the management team of O'Dowd, Trevor Giles, Sean Kelly and Colm Brady.
"It gives a sense of calm. There's a steady base to build on."
The championship traditionally brings out the best in Meath and they are tipped to come out of Aughrim unscathed tonight, with Gillespie in midfield and Reilly back to his natural position of wing-forward.
Reilly has been one of Meath's marquee performers, winning two All Star nominations in the last three seasons, while he finished top scorer from play in the 2012 championship.
He has, however, lost his title as the fastest man on the Meath team with the call-up of Eamon Wallace, but sees O'Dowd trying to turn him into a more rounded player.
"I'm trying to vary my game," says Reilly (pictured). "Even in the league, a lot of teams know that I'm going to go off the shoulder and that I'm going to try to take a man on.
"I'm trying to vary it, Mick's trying to get that into me, to make me a better player.
"The last couple of weeks, I have been working on retaining the ball and then moving it and going again rather than trying to do it all myself.
"It's a bit of a relaxed approach from Mick. He wants to leave a lot of responsibility on the players. As players, we respect that."
Still a thread of realism runs through the county. It's only last February that the Royals looked a decent bet for relegation to the basement Division.
Last summer, Carlow took them to a replay and they lost to Laois. The Royals are, Reilly agrees, well off the pace of the top teams. But they are at least now pointed in the right direction.
"There's a massive gap between a couple of teams, the likes of Donegal, Dublin, Kerry, we're not naive, we know that. If we get our stuff together and, hopefully, get over Wicklow, even by a point, that sets us up nicely for the semi-final."