Colm Keys: 'Absenteeism an issue for Lilywhites but former defender Bolton sees plenty of scope for improvement'
On the first weekend of the league two years ago, Kildare rolled into Navan for a Division 2 clash feeling a little bruised from their loss in an O'Byrne Cup semi-final a few weeks earlier to a Dublin development team containing none of their mainstream players or substitutes from the previous year's All-Ireland final against Mayo.
Niall Scully was there for Dublin, at the gateway to his advancement, so too was Evan Comerford while peripheral figures like Ciarán Reddin and Conor McHugh also featured.
But the bruising didn't last long, less than 20 seconds in fact when Ben McCormack slipped a goal and by the half-hour mark the game was effectively over with the visitors establishing a 10-point lead that would remain to the end.
Kildare got promotion and reached a Leinster final that same year and, while they got relegated with seven straight defeats last year and tumbled out of Leinster to Carlow recovery came with reaching the inaugural 'Super 8s' where they acquitted themselves quite well.
Since that opening 2017 game Meath have remained trapped in a web of inconsistency. That league loss was franked by a nine-point championship loss to Kildare in the summer and while some performance levels have risen above that it is to Kildare that they really look to as a barometer of progress.
Leinster has become such a formality for Dublin that the province's only real interest is who is next.
Kildare and Meath cradle a traditional entitlement and their league status - the only Leinster teams (except Dublin) in the top two divisions - props up a bit of that.
But losing to Carlow and Longford on the same day in last year's championship hardly concretes their status on the podium.
Still, on the basis of those 2017 results and where they've been since, not to mention an All-Ireland U-20 title thrown in last summer, Kildare are entitled to the higher ranking.
Yet it's Meath who come into this home game with a target on their back, at the head of a tightly-packed Allianz Division 2 that sees just three points separate the top seven teams.
Kildare are just a point off their neighbours but the mood music around them isn't so sweet.
They've drawn with Armagh at home, beaten Cork on the road, lost to Fermanagh in Enniskillen before recovering against Clare in Newbridge the last day.
Five points from a possible eight is a reasonable haul but their former wing-back Emmet Bolton admits to have expected more.
"Based on the first four games, I feel they have regressed a small bit even from this time last year when they were losing games but playing a better brand of football," figures Bolton.
"They don't seem to be as fluid in their play which is disappointing based on their ability. You can link that to players who are injured, suspended, not committing for the year and unavailable through club commitments but they should be performing to a higher standard than what they are doing."
Daniel Flynn is arguably the biggest loss, having decided not to commit in 2019 and go travelling instead but Paul Cribbin's absence through injury has also had an effect.
That said, Bolton feels there's enough around in attack to mitigate against that.
"To be fair to Dan, he was very good last year but his form can be sporadic at times. Paddy Brophy is there, Jimmy Hyland, Ben McCormack didn't commit last year but is back in now, Adam Tyrell is back.
"Dan was our main scoregetter last year whereas there are guys coming in now into the full-forward line where they will spread those scores across the board," says Bolton.
"He's (Flynn) a loss going to be ably replaced. The others wouldn't be as explosive as Dan but they are solid and will get you scores."
Hyland is one of a trio of U-20s from last year who have been making the team regularly with Mark Dempsey in the full-back line and Masterson at midfield, mainly as an impact substitute.
Bolton has been most impressed by Hyland, particularly his decision-making.
"I've seen him play and I've played against him and he has yet to make a bad decision."
But he feels the arrival of these players should be providing a bigger reaction from the rest of the squad as they seek to build on a progressive end to last season.
"On the back of 10 U-20s coming into the squad and with guys a year older and wiser, it's very disappointing that they haven't kicked on. There's a lot of competition for places and ability in the group. They're just not motoring, they're not cohesive.
"Defensively, they're a little bit more porous than they were last year. Looking at the last game, Clare created three or four goal chances. Only for Mark Donnellan's three or four good saves, different result. Armagh created three or four goal chances too."
The biggest disappointment for Bolton was the approach to the Fermanagh game, coming so soon since the loss to Carlow last summer.
"Fermanagh brought to the table the same style of play as Carlow and it wasn't dealt with again.
"They didn't learn and adapt, from a management point of view and players to a degree. Six points, one from play? Extremely disappointing."
Yet he knows the nature of the division is such that a win tomorrow in Navan would push them to the brink of Division 1 again, a place he feels they should be and will be.
It's interesting to look back at teams from two years ago and note the changes in personnel.
From the 21 players Meath used just eight remain on their squad, while Kildare have 14, pointing to a much steadier course taken in that time.
Niall Kelly (travelling) and Johnny Byrne have joined Flynn in taking themselves out of the picture for now but their pool of resources are deep enough, Bolton feels, to be winning all of their games so far.