Wednesday 24 January 2018

Meath and Galway on the road to recovery

Mick O'Dowd will try to mastermind a winning plan
Mick O'Dowd will try to mastermind a winning plan
Donnchadh Boyle

Donnchadh Boyle

IT was the first sign of the changing of the guard. Meath and Galway's All-Ireland final in 2001 was the maiden year of the back door and also marked the end of an era.

Twelve months after they battled it out in Croke Park, Armagh – with their warm-weather training camps and imposing physicality – secured their first All-Ireland title and set in motion the GAA's equivalent of the space race.

Managers went for stronger, faster, fitter players, setting higher standards for conditioning year on year. Reputations and pedigree went out the window and several teams were left behind as the race for the top heated up. In the new world, Meath and Galway struggled to live up to their winning traditions.

For both counties, the intervening years have largely wavered between the traumatic and the indifferent. What's certain is that neither side has reached an All-Ireland final or looked like being serious All-Ireland contenders.

All-Ireland semi-final appearances for the Royals in 2007 and '09 tell one story, but Meath's acid test is usually where they are in relation to Dublin.

The Dubs' vice-like grip on Leinster since 2002 – they won five titles on the bounce from 2005-09 when off the pace set by several of the big guns outside the province – is probably a more accurate benchmark as to Meath's standing.

Over this period, the Royals' underage system has been exposed as being well behind some of the top counties.

Galway's age-grade sides have enjoyed some success, but they have been similarly blunt at the senior grade. There have been Connacht titles, but the Tribesmen haven't won a championship game at Croke Park since that 2001 decider.

There have been several low points for both sides.

Meath fans will remember their hammering in Limerick in '08 – or earlier the same summer when the kings of the comeback were given a taste of their own medicine when they blew a 10-point half-time lead against Wexford.

Galway's bad memories are much fresher – their defeat against Mayo last summer was the biggest in more than a century, while they have also suffered championship reversals against the likes of Antrim and Westmeath.

In those tumultuous periods for the counties, managers were removed with alarming regularity for a variety of reasons, with the '04 departure of John O'Mahony in Galway and the '05 retirement of Sean Boylan in Meath creating voids that proved difficult to fill.

RECOVERY

Four men have come and gone in both counties before the appointment of incumbents Mick O'Dowd and Alan Mulholland, and there have been some signs of recovery as they set about reeling in their great rivals – and last year's All-Ireland finalists – Dublin and Mayo.

After their hammering against James Horan's side last summer, Mulholland helped Galway rebuild their season through the back door, with their win over Tipperary in the first round of the qualifiers their first championship success against a team from outside Connacht since '04.

Aided by three home draws in a row, they reached the last round of the qualifiers. Confidence returned and they almost took out Cork in Croke Park. That performance alone is enough to suggest they are back on the right road.

O'Dowd has gone about his business quietly since his appointment in late 2012. Promotion from Division 3 was a stated priority and that was followed by progression to a Leinster final, where the Royals saved some of their best football of the year for the Dubs, leading by two points at half-time.

The eventual seven-point defeat was a false reflection as Meath declined late point chances to push for unlikely goals. Tyrone outmuscled them in the qualifiers a fortnight later.

The latest measure of Meath and Galway's progress will be assessed at Navan on Sunday when the Royals host the Tribesmen in the NFL Division 2 opener at Navan.

Meath used the O'Byrne Cup to test the depth of their panel, but the experimentation is likely to stop there.

Midfielder Conor Gillespie is a doubt having been forced off in last Sunday's defeat in Newbridge. Shane O'Rourke would look a ready-made replacement, but management are keen to stress he's still working his way back from an injury that almost wrecked his career, so might not play from the start.

Galway are without Michael Meehan, but former Kildare ace James Kavanagh has settled well into the squad.

Meath will next travel to Clones to face Monaghan and Galway welcome Donegal, meaning defeat here could put the losers on the back foot very early on.

In both counties, foundations have been laid on which the road to recovery can be built. It's time to test them.

Irish Independent

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