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'Meath don't fear Dublin. We want to be playing them, we don't want to shy away from that'

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Sean Tobin of Simonstown Gaels commiserates Niall Finnerty of Skryne after their Meath SFC clash on Sunday. Photo: Sportsfile

Sean Tobin of Simonstown Gaels commiserates Niall Finnerty of Skryne after their Meath SFC clash on Sunday. Photo: Sportsfile

SPORTSFILE

Sean Tobin of Simonstown Gaels commiserates Niall Finnerty of Skryne after their Meath SFC clash on Sunday. Photo: Sportsfile

All going well on that perilous pandemic front, Meath footballers' first game back on the inter-county carousel will be against Dublin in Croke Park on the weekend of October 17/18.

A game that Meath would prefer had never been rescheduled, Seán Tobin can now admit.

But this has nothing to do with fear of the blue juggernaut. Rather, having spent so many years striving to get back into Division 1, only to have instant relegation confirmed with two rounds still to play, the all-enveloping grip of Covid-19 had thrown open the possibility that this year's Allianz League would be declared null and void.

And that would have been a blessed relief to the Royals.

"We all were kind of hoping and praying that would happen," Tobin concedes, "but I don't think the GAA were going to allow that. We were for a while, we were licking our lips."

Put bluntly, to be reborn as genuine challengers to Dublin, Meath need top-flight football.

This was their first year back among the elite since 2006 - even then, the top tier comprised 16 teams, split into Divisions 1A and 1B - and they'd love to have stayed there.

As Tobin explains: "In Division 1, we all kind of realised that you're probably not going to be winning All-Irelands in Division 2. You have to be in Division 1 if you've any aspirations of winning All-Ireland titles or Leinster titles.

"You just have to be playing against the big boys. That's just the way it is. Their S&C, their standard of fitness, their ruthlessness, everything . . . I suppose that's what we learned and that's what we want to do."

Tobin was back on the championship beat on Sunday - this time helping Simonstown Gaels to a six-point victory over Skryne in their Meath SFC round-robin opener.

It's "brilliant" to be back playing, he enthuses. "It just gives everyone a great lift during a tough time."

Back-to-back champions in 2016 and '17, Simonstown's quest for a third title won't be easy with holders Ratoath also in their group and just one advancing to the semi-finals.

"We came back after lockdown and weren't going overly well, we were trying hard but nothing was happening for us," Tobin reflects. "Moynalvey beat us in the league, Kells beat us . . . but we knew if we kept at it and just worked hard (we'd be OK)."

While club aspirations are now paramount, Tobin retains one eye on autumn and a redrafted inter-county season. There, the ambition will be to arrest Meath's current losing streak - eight on the spin.

It doesn't help when their first game back is that league clash with Dublin, who crushed the Royals by 1-17 to 0-4 in last year's Leinster final.

Yet Tobin is adamant that morale has not suffered.

"To be honest, it's not something that would ever come up in meetings," the 29-year-old says.

"We do look at the Dubs . . . like, if you want to be the best, you have to beat the best. We never would fear them going into games. Look, they've given us a fair hiding over the last couple of years, but we don't think we're too far away. The score last year in the Leinster final, I don't think it was a true reflection of our efforts. They kicked away in the second half but in the first half it was very tight.

"If we can build on that, build up our fitness, maybe just be a bit more ruthless up top, I don't think we're too far away. We wouldn't fear them every year, we want to be playing Dublin, we don't want to shy away from that.

"Andy McEntee has drilled it into us that we're improving every year. And you just have to believe. If I'm going into a Meath set-up in the cold nights of November and thinking, 'We're going to be beat by Dublin in May,' sure what's the point? You have to believe that you're going to get there - and there is great belief in the camp."

Their Super 8s baptism of fire last summer reflected both progress and ongoing problems: Meath were right in contention against Donegal, Mayo and Kerry at the three-quarter mark, but ultimately lost all three by a cumulative 26 points. "It was just a bit of experience and a bit of cuteness that probably beat us in the end," Tobin reckons.

"I'd love another season in Division 1; I think you'd see a different Meath team. That experience under your belt would do you the world of good.

"Again, we're probably going back to Division 2. We'd like to think we'll come up out of Division 2 again and you might see a different Meath team in Division 1 in the future."

He accepts that finishing out an already doomed league campaign will be "strange for us" but he remains upbeat about the straight knockout championship that follows, with Meath facing Wexford or Wicklow in a Leinster quarter-final while Dublin are located on the other half of the draw.

"We can just attack those (league) games and then try and give the championship a serious rattle," he says. "Look, the top teams are going to be very tough 'bet' but I suppose everyone feels this year, with the way it's run, that you might just have a better chance than normal years.

"And Meath are coming. I know we're gone down, but I thought we were unlucky in a couple of the games in Division 1. The last ten minutes probably just did us. So, if we can improve on those last ten minutes, I think we'll have a good run in the championship."

Ideally, given the unprecedented circumstances, Tobin would have "loved to see an open draw". But he remains sanguine about the future for the sleeping Royal giant.

"Dublin have been so strong and I suppose for the rest of us, we've been kind of playing a bit of catch-up. But I do believe we are starting to, slowly but surely, fill the gap," he says.

"And I do think, in years to come, you'll see the likes of Meath and maybe the other teams in Leinster - Kildare, Westmeath - getting closer to Dublin.

"Look, they're a fantastic team, the greatest team in history, but you can't stay at the top forever. And that's what we'll be hoping."

Irish Independent