Saturday 18 November 2017

Ciarán Whelan: I miss the raw edge of the old Meath rivalry

Graham Reilly will be a key figure for Meath at Croke Park on Sunday. Photo: Ray McManus/Sportsfile
Graham Reilly will be a key figure for Meath at Croke Park on Sunday. Photo: Ray McManus/Sportsfile

Ciarán Whelan

I never thought I would utter the words but in lots of ways, I miss Meath football! Did I just write that? Maybe it is time for me to check in with the men in the white coats and see am I ok!

Or maybe it is the fact that I was brought up on a diet of Dublin v Meath games in Croke Park. A Dublin Meath fixture was the highlight of summer football in June or July.  Croke Park rocked with the atmosphere, with the Meath fans taking over the Hogan Stand and the Hill absolutely packed to capacity and beyond with Dubs.

Respect off the pitch transformed into a raw hatred between the white lines. Both teams were as guilty as each other. If an opportunity arose to leave a late elbow in a tackle and land awkwardly driving a knee or fist into the opponent, it was an opportunity missed if not taken. That was the way it was and whatever the result both teams accepted it, shook hands and moved on.

From a footballing perspective Dublin really need Meath to come again with a new generation of footballers and be a force in Leinster football again. Without that, the great rivalry will continue to dilute further.   Ok maybe not a great force, a good force!

Presently though, the gap between Dublin and Meath looks insurmountable for the Royal County based on the current form of both teams.

The last couple of weekends will have given the underdogs, Meath, a hope. Tipperary ambushed a Cork team in disarray whilst Galway deservedly took out a complacent Mayo side with a performance based on a great work ethic and an organised defensive structure.

In a strange way Laois have not helped Meath by poking the Dublin giant in the second half of their Leinster opener. Whilst Laois deserve credit for not throwing in towel, Dublin switched off and lost their defensive shape in the second half.

While the result was never in doubt, that lapse in concentration will have disappointed Jim Gavin and it gave him a stick to beat his troops with over the last couple of weeks.

Meath have had a disjointed season to date. Winning only two games in the National League Division 2 is nothing to write home about. More importantly though were the spectacular second-half collapses against Cavan and Galway when they lost significant leads in both games. Their performance against Louth in their Leinster opener could be described as average.

Any similar lapses in concentration by Meath will be punished ruthlessly by Dublin. The backdrop for Sunday for some people is the fact that Meath are a young, inexperienced team coming to Croke Park for public hanging.

Less fear

Where there is inexperience, there can be less fear. Young players can be fearless and grow in confidence on the big stage if they have strong minded players around them. Donal Keoghan, Graham Reilly, Eamon Wallace and Andrew Tormey are the key players that need to lead the way. Their mental preparation will decide the outcome.

If Meath are happy to come to Croke Park with an objective of damaged limitation and go back down the road with a ‘moral victory’, they may rasise the white flag now.

Alternatively they can come and trust their game-plan, have a cut off the Dubs and give themselves a chance of causing an upset. They still remain the team in Leinster that have got closest to Dublin during Jim Gavin’s reign. They came to Croke Park for the 2013 Leinster Final and lost by seven points (2-15 to 0-14), fading in the last quarter.

That day they pressurised the Dublin kickout successfully for long periods, dominated midfield in the first half and caused the Dublin full-back line some trouble.  Graham Reilly and Eamon Wallace are perfected moulded to bring pace to the Meath

counter-attack and Michael Newman has the game in his locker to ask questions of the Dublin full-back line.

The perceived weaknesses in the Dublin full-back line will be thrashed out all weekend in the build-up and there is no doubt but that Meath will launch a few direct balls to the edge of the square hoping to get some return from them. Dublin will expect this tactic and it will be interesting to see if there is any change to their approach in the full-back line.

It may be time for Gavin to put a leash on Philly McMahon and utilise him closer to the Dublin goal if he is needed to counter-act any threat.

Whilst this may be looking at the game optimistically for Meath, it is all easier said than done for the Royal County.

Dublin are a different animal to the 2013 model and there have been no signs of their desire and hunger wilting in recent months.

They now have the adaptability to deal with what ever

game-plan comes their way. They have shown they can deal with various defensive strategies of their opponents. If Cluxton’s kickouts are squeezed they now have Brian Fenton which gives them an aerial presence in midfield. Up front Ciarán Kilkenny is approaching his peak which is frightening and I expect young Con O’Callaghan will make an impact off the bench. And they are just the young lads!   

The heart would love to see a battle of real substance but the head tells me we may have to wait a while longer.

Herald Sport

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