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Dark days looming for Meath

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Meath manager Seamus McEnaney speaks to his team after their win over Monaghan at Pairc Tailteann in February – since then, they have lost four of their five matches

Meath manager Seamus McEnaney speaks to his team after their win over Monaghan at Pairc Tailteann in February – since then, they have lost four of their five matches

Meath manager Seamus McEnaney speaks to his team after their win over Monaghan at Pairc Tailteann in February – since then, they have lost four of their five matches

The first seconds of added-time were just beginning to tick when Meath defender Shane McAnarney broke through the ranks of white shirts massed in front of the Kildare goals and steadied himself to shoot.

He was just over 20 metres out and his success rate from pushing forward from deep positions was decent up to that point as a goal against Monaghan, a point against Westmeath and another point earlier in that third-round Division 2 league match in Navan would testify.

At that moment the sides were level, 2-11 to 0-17, after a thrilling 70 minutes. A point would surely have given Meath the momentum to kill the game in what little time was left and break a sequence of four consecutive defeats to Kildare in the previous 19 months, three times in the championship (2010 All-Ireland quarter-final, 2011 Leinster quarter-final and third-round qualifier) and once in the 2011 league.

With a probable Leinster semi-final coming up in June, Meath badly needed to stop the rot against this Kildare team. They needed to believe that they could beat them, and there were signs throughout that second half that they would, against considerable odds.

Stake

McAnarney's break created that opportunity. But the shot spun off an upright, allowing Kildare to regroup, build and eventually kill the game themselves when Ollie Lyons, not for the first time on the night, darted clear of the cover to drive a stake through the collective heart of the home side.

Still, there was some optimism that Meath were inching ever closer to a team they are inevitably going to have to beat in the championship if they want to claim real progress.

Manager Seamus McEnaney was inculcating a new style based on more precise movement out of defence and a faster, more mobile attack less dependent on getting their bigger men on the end of route-one ball. At times it worked against Kildare, even if some of the handpassing was over-elaborate.

The consequences of those last few frantic minutes in Navan earlier this month may not have seemed much at the time.

But in hindsight they have had a dramatic impact on the shape of the season for both counties.

Kildare have taken flight since then, with victories over Derry, Louth and Westmeath, making promotion to Division 1 for the first time in four years a realistic goal.

In contrast Meath have gone into freefall, the impressive nature of their opening to the campaign being wiped out by defeats to Galway, Derry and Tyrone that have got progressively worse over the last three weekends. The departure of Joe Sheridan to the US two weeks ago has only served to compound the misery of March for them.

In Omagh on Saturday night Meath lost by 10 points; and if the deficit had been 20 points it might have been a more accurate reflection of the balance of play. The Royals looked drained of confidence and energy.

So for the second time in his tenure with Meath, McEnaney is facing a nail-biting end to a Division 2 campaign, having lost four consecutive games. Last year, there was at least a gradual improvement through March against Kildare and Derry after bad losses to Antrim and Donegal. This time, the graph is in the opposite direction.

For the second time he is facing Louth in a match knowing that defeat could leave him perilously close to an exit.

The odds are that Meath will stay up, even if they lose to Louth at home in 12 days' time, as their score advantage is superior to Westmeath and Monaghan, who have difficult games against Derry and Tyrone.

If one of Westmeath or Monaghan were to win, however, and Meath lost then they would make the drop.

For Meath such a decline would make appalling viewing and add weight to the strong chorus of opinion that opposed the concept of breaking with tradition and appointing an outside manager in the first place.

There is no apparent undercurrent, no simmering row that may explain the malaise of the performances over the last two weekends. By most accounts, training has been good.

McEnaney said yesterday that he took "responsibility for getting the best out of the players and in the last two games we haven't got the best out of them."

In a county that dispensed with a manager who had won a Leinster title two months earlier, it goes without saying that the ice beneath his replacement is creaking.

Sheridan's departure has clearly been felt, the physical presence he provides being an obvious loss. With Nigel Crawford and Anthony Moyles retiring, and Shane O'Rourke on the long-term injury list, a dearth of experience has been exposed.

Beyond the issue of the manager's origin, the style of play being developed or the deployment of personnel in roles they are not accustomed to, which will inevitably be sourced as reasons for the decline, there are other relevant fundamentals.

Meath's underage record over the last 10 years is appalling, especially at the more relevant U-21 level, where they have lost significant ground on their major rivals in the province.

Not since 2001 have they even reached a provincial U-21 final. The corollary between good underage and senior teams isn't always there, but not to have even reached a final in the main feeder grade to a senior team suggests problems in the years ahead for whoever assumes management of the team.

For now, though, McEnaney presses on, vowing "a serious performance" against Louth in Navan on Sunday week. But he understands that not everyone shares his faith.

As a manager he has had his back to the wall in the last round of the last three leagues, requiring a point with Meath against Tyrone 12 months ago, needing to avoid a five-point defeat when in charge of Monaghan against Kerry in Killarney in 2010 (they lost by four) and needing to beat Laois, again with Monaghan, by 10 points for promotion in 2009 (they won by 15).

This time, though, with Louth coming to town on the back of some decent performances themselves, the pressure is greater than ever.

Irish Independent