Sunday 17 December 2017

Gap between Meath and Dubs wider than ever

O'Dowd hoping to cut out second-half fade-outs and test champions

Meath manager Mick O’Dowd in the backround with Dublin boss Jim Gavin during the 2014 Leinster final. Picture credit: Barry Cregg / SPORTSFILE
Meath manager Mick O’Dowd in the backround with Dublin boss Jim Gavin during the 2014 Leinster final. Picture credit: Barry Cregg / SPORTSFILE
Colm Keys

Colm Keys

Jim McEnaney's spectacular goal for Louth in the 64th minute of their recent Leinster quarter-final ensured that a familiar trend remained in place for the opponents they faced. For the seventh consecutive championship match Meath failed to 'win' a second half.

The goal was pivotal to trimming a five-point interval lead back to four (0-18 to 1-11) and that's eventually where the game settled four scores later.

Hardly a huge aberration at first glance for Meath but, in the context of how so many league and championship matches have slipped away from them in the second half, a recurring theme is somewhat magnified.

Not since they ran in three first-half goals against Carlow in a 2014 Leinster quarter-final, before adding four more after that, have they outscored championship opponents in both halves.


Since then they have taken a five-point lead (1-9 to 0-7) into a semi-final with Kildare and won by five (2-16 to 0-17), having led by 12 at one stage, they've trailed Dublin by nine (1-12 to 0-6) and lost by 16 (3-20 to 1-10) and trailed Armagh by one (0-8 to 0-7) in a subsequent qualifier and lost by five (0-18 to 0-13) - all in 2014 alone.

Last year offered no respite against Wicklow (led by five at half-time, won by four), Westmeath (led by eight, lost by four) and Tyrone (led by one, lost by two) in a qualifier.

This year's league, for the most part, was scarcely different with eight- and nine-point leads given up in back to-back games against Cavan and Galway

For a county that once conspired to engineer some of the most storied comebacks in recent GAA history, it's quite a dramatic turnaround, underpinning their current fragility as they face into a fourth Leinster Championship match against Dublin in five years with the odds never so far apart.

That said, to build up such healthy leads, as they have done against Kildare in 2014, Westmeath in 2015 and Cavan and Galway in the league earlier this year, suggests that they have to getting something right.

Ironically, that Galway result in Salthill, a 1-12 (Meath) to 0-15 draw saw the visitors steam into a nine-point lead before trailing by three in a 12-point swing, was a day that Mick O'Dowd felt his players had shown character.

They lost their next match to Tyrone but finished out their campaign with a draw in Derry and a win on the road in Laois to preserve their Division 2 status for another season.

The extremity of some of their performances and results has been undermining the team for almost a decade now.

From the 11-point swing against them to lose a 10-point lead against Wexford in 2008 to the qualifier game against Limerick that followed - they were 20 points down at one stage before losing by eight - stability has been poor for quite some time.

O'Dowd has overseen more change than any manager in the years since Sean Boylan stepped away.

Remarkably, only Graham Reilly from the 17 players used against Louth in the infamous 2010 Leinster final though two more, goalkeeper Paddy O'Rourke who was suspended and defender Mickey Burke who had a broken leg, were involved at the time.

Between the end of last season and the beginning of 2016, O'Dowd has had to replace virtually an entire backroom team and up to 12 players.

The retirement of Stephen Bray took the best player in that post-Boylan era out of the picture, recurring injuries forced Kevin Reilly to retire while three different hip operations have sidetracked Shane O'Rourke. Midfielder Conor Gillespie is struggling to refloat his career too because of a bad knee injury.

On top of that Brian Menton and Davy Dalton, regular defenders last year, didn't commit, while Adam Flanagan, a promising midfielder, is still rehabilitating a knee injury. A number of other fringe players also stepped away.

O'Dowd has regularly reflected on his inability, over three seasons, to start Bray, Reilly, Gillespie and O'Rourke, all central players, on the same team.

By his reckoning he has given debuts to 19 players in his time so far.

To compound his problems, half a defence - James McEntee, Conor McGill and Brian Power - missed the Louth game and may well miss out on Sunday too.

Meath underage teams have routinely failed to make sustained progress at underage level over the last decade-and-a-half, especially at U-21 level, where they have reached just one Leinster final since 2001.

At club level the county's champions have made little or no impact in the province over the last decade, though that was never a good indicator of the strength or weakness of Meath football.

But the signs are more encouraging with a superb win over Dublin in a recent Leinster minor quarter-final and the convening of some strong development squads behind them.

For now though they're in the eye of the storm. Two years ago the gap was 16 points with Dublin, three years ago it was eight while in 2012, Seamus McEnaney's second year, it was three. The gap has been widening with each passing year. The return from a two-year lay-off of Cillian O'Sullivan, allied to the pace of Graham Reilly and Eamonn Wallace outside him on the half-forward line, is positive.

But that second-half trend of recent years points to a vulnerability that has been all too prevalent.

Irish Independent

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