Tuesday 12 December 2017

Injecting new life into Royal hearts

Seamus McEnaney leaves the
Croke Park pitch after his
Meath team beat Kildare on
Seamus McEnaney leaves the Croke Park pitch after his Meath team beat Kildare on Sunday DAVID MAHER/SPORTSFILE
Colm Keys

Colm Keys

Between them they have made just 28 appearances, some of them merely as replacements, over the last two seasons.

But a sextet of young players given championship debuts and first starts by Seamus McEnaney over the last six weeks have injected new life into the carcass that was Meath football less than three months ago.

It's been quite an incredible transformation. The manager that so few wanted and the team that so few loved have turned their fortunes around dramatically in just one afternoon.

When McEnaney and his trusted sidekick Niall McNally got into the manager's car in Monaghan on the second Sunday in April and pointed it in the direction of Baltinglass for Wicklow's last regulation Division 4 league match against Clare, it looked like the last act of a desperate man.

The vultures appeared to be already circling back in Navan where a series of club matches were taking place and Sean Boylan, the most successful manager in Meath football and one of the most successful ever, was poised to return.

As he stood watching their first-round championship opponents that afternoon, McEnaney could scarcely have envisaged being able to turn around to the Meath supporters in the Hogan Stand and pump his fists as he did after a six-point win over the team that so many felt were best positioned to break the stranglehold of the top three in the weeks and months ahead.

By then McEnaney would have already reconciled to change his approach to the way he managed and selected the team, provided he survived.


So he introduced fresh blood in his own back-room team, inviting John Evans (a decision that was initially greeted with some incredulity) on board as well as tapping into the thoughts of Trevor Giles, who was already present as one of the team's physios.

But it was the injection of youth and pace that has been the most critical element of Meath's makeover.

Alan Forde, Damien Carroll and Donnacha Tobin are pacy and athletic players that Meath just didn't seem to have in so many of their most recent championship battles against Kildare.

Eight of the starting team were under 23 on Sunday. Conor Gillespie and Graham Reilly were the oldest of that group, while five of the starting team were part of an U-21 side defeated by Offaly in Gracefield earlier this year. Tobin was less than one month away from making that a sextet.

Under McEnaney, six of that eight have been given first championship starts this season alone. In all he has given championship life to eight new players in his two years.

For a county that has not reached a provincial U-21 final for 11 years, it looked like a big risk to take to place faith in so many at the same time.

Some of the change was by design, some by accident. Gillespie, Man of the Match on Sunday, only benefited from the withdrawal through long-term injury of Shane O'Rourke and Mark Ward. Keogan got his chance when Seamus Kenny's season ended with a cruciate ligament tear against Wicklow and is developing into the find of the season with his ability to shut out dangerous opponents. His performance in the third quarter against Johnny Doyle on Sunday reflected that.

Incredibly, of the 20 players that featured in the first-round qualifier against Louth just over 12 months ago, only six started against Kildare on Sunday.

That underlines, more than anything else, the scale of the transformation in the last few weeks.

Inevitably there will be comparisons drawn with Boylan's 1996 makeover when Mark O'Reilly, Darren Fay, Paddy Reynolds and Barry Callaghan made championship debuts in the same season after a 10-point defeat to Dublin in the previous year's Leinster final.


But those comparisons, for now, look far-fetched. The words of caution delivered in the dressing-room in the immediate aftermath were later resonated by selector Graham Geraghty. They understand the thin lines that exist between defeat and victory.

Meath may not win the Leinster title. They may not even get beyond the championship's last 12 later this month.

But in ending the sequence of defeats to Kildare -- five in succession in league and championship -- they have at least provided hope where previously there was none.

Young players with no baggage assumed responsibility, perhaps unburdened by so many older hands scarred by so much defeat and controversy in recent years.

It was former midfielder Liam Hayes who suggested earlier this year that this Meath team would explode and implode in the same year.

Perhaps they have already done both and are now ready to plot a more normal, balanced path into the future.

Irish Independent

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