Tuesday 23 January 2018

Meath face huge odds to redress the balance

Dublin and Westmeath supporters cheer on their sides. Photo: Brendan Moran / Sportsfile
Dublin and Westmeath supporters cheer on their sides. Photo: Brendan Moran / Sportsfile

Dermot Crowe

It could at this stage be a chosen specialist subject on Mastermind: Dublin's dominance of the Leinster football championship. Your questions start now. Who was the last county to beat Dublin in Leinster? Meath in 2010. Correct. Who was the last county to beat Dublin in Leinster before Meath? Westmeath in 2004. Correct. Who was the last county to come within 10 points of Dublin in Leinster? Meath in 2013. Correct. What was the margin of defeat in that match? Seven points. Correct. What was the margin when they met in the Leinster final a year later? 16 points. Correct.

Dublin's provincial dominance is not a new thing but it's getting more and more pronounced. Last year Dublin started out with a 27-point win over Longford in the quarter-final, then throttled Kildare, winning by 19, before burying any pretensions Westmeath might have, following their historic win over Meath, with a 13-point win in the final.

The previous year the margins, in successive wins over Laois, Wexford and Meath, were 11, 16 and 16. Previous year: 16, 16 and that respectable seven in the final against Meath. There are club players who might count one 14-point beating at under 14 as their career low but for these counties, many of them Leinster winners in the last decade, this has become commonplace.

Twenty-five years after the four-match preliminary rounder between Dublin and Meath provided the impetus for major change in the GAA, from eventual structural reform of competition to the unbridled embrace of live television, in Leinster the essential component of any competition - uncertainty - has collapsed. Instead of bowing to complacency and paying the price, Dublin have continually upped their own standards and sought improvement. If their serious ambitions are beyond Leinster now, the prevailing structure first requires them to steam-roll whatever provincial foe is put in their way.

Because of the following that Dublin bring, and the success which underpins it, attendances haven't been dealt a massive blow. Today, through a double-header, the GAA expects to get around 45,000 in Croke Park. But the most supreme optimist accepts that the plight of the Leinster counties trailing in Dublin's wake can't be ignored or left without some remedial action.

Gerry McEntee, a Meath midfielder from a time when they were a thorn in Dublin's side, isn't going to Croke Park without hope, but the hope is probably more of seeing strong Meath resistance rather than winning.

"As a Meath man I think there is a real danger that this will not go in cycles," he says of Dublin's current supremacy. "You are starting off with a population that is six times greater than the population of Meath, the number of younger people playing is six times higher. The other huge discrepancy is that there are 60 full-time coaches in the schools in Dublin working during the day when everyone is at work. And Meath have four. So there is the crux of the matter; this isn't going to change.

"Now I don't blame Dublin; in a way I admire Dublin for being so organised and having had so much organised vision 10 or 15 years ago to get this into place. But it has created a huge imbalance."

The chairman of the Leinster Council, John Horan, is a Dublin man. "We are quite conscious of it. You look at Dublin and they are considerably ahead of everybody else. We are putting structures and plans in place in the whole coaching area and offering extra support to those counties by creating cross-border competition," he says.

"One of the big advantages that Dublin have is the capacity to have good club competition. In any of the underage groups, take an under 14 or 16 player in Dublin, he will have up to 14 games in his age group in the league and then he'll have the championship. All of those are of a very competitive nature. I think that is one of the things that is holding back the other counties. People will say you can train all you like but games will bring you on, and games of a meaningful nature."

In many of the counties struggling to stay in touch with Dublin, their club competitions are less competitive and tend to be dominated by a small number of clubs. "They are playing themselves all the time," says Horan. "That is not happening in Dublin because of the number of clubs in Dublin and the standard. To address that we have been working to create cross-border leagues and Liam O'Neill has been involved and working with the counties to introduce cross-border games into their fixtures programmes. I would see it kicking in big time next year. He has met the counties and explained the thinking behind it and they are buying into it."

There is an acceptance that coaching resources in counties like Meath, Kildare and Westmeath, all featuring in today's semi-finals, are too low and need to be increased. Horan says that loading more coaches into counties, of itself, and without strategic planning in place, won't have the desired effect. But they have been down this road before, due to Kilkenny's dominance in the Leinster hurling championship.

Horan says that having it too easy is detrimental to Dublin in the long run. "If they are too successful then the competitive element will go out of it and the sponsors will lose interest, and the public. It is very much in their interest that, while they want to stay ahead, those chasing close the gap and make it competitive. If every Leinster game that they win is by a cricket score the crowd won't be interested, sponsors won't be interested."

Seamus Kenny finished playing for Meath in 2014, by which time the gap between Dublin and the rest had become alarming. He was on the team beaten by seven points in the 2013 Leinster final, and injured the following year when they lost by 16. "I think that was the biggest hammering we got in a long time and that might have frightened Meath people into thinking what was coming down the line. From a Meath perspective it's hard to ignore that Dublin at this moment in time are far superior to ourselves. But I do believe it is a cyclical thing. At juvenile level the gap is not as big."

That gives some cause for hope. Meath heavily defeated Dublin in this year's minor championship and Kildare have won two Leinster minor titles in the last three years, with Longford winning one in 2010. Kenny is now the Meath County Board's operations manager and has intimate knowledge of the work going on through their development squads. "Things are starting to change," he says. "Definitely, we are getting more structure to our development squads. I would see that with results against Dublin teams, I know it's not a firm indicator either, but it does give hope."

In 2014, he says Meath went into the Leinster final "firmly believing" they were going to beat Dublin. "I have no problem in saying that we were 100 per cent confident. I think what happened in that game left a lot of mental scarring on players. Croke Park is a very lonely place when you are getting bet, but when getting bet to that extent, and by Dublin on top of that, I think there is a psychological implication to that."

Meath has six GPAs working part-time and full-time, and could do with at least twice that number. A new centre of excellence has helped, giving them a base, and Kenny feels too much can be made of results at minor level. "You can kind of get the wrong picture of what is going on, if solely judging on results. We want to get as many of our players through the squads up to senior. Last year's minor team we would have high hopes for but it just did not perform on a given day, yet two of those players will be togging out on Sunday."

Gerry McEntee doesn't see any easy solution, nor does he see Dublin regressing. "Dublin are not going to come back, no. And they are more organised all the time. They now have a full-time marketing manager in Tomás Quinn, and his ability to attract funding is massively greater than anything the other counties can do. Massively so. At present I think Meath get €40,000 a year from the Irish Sports Council and Dublin €1.4m. That might change. The funding is needed to get full-time coaches but the impact would take a long time. If you were to start in the morning it would take a minimum of five years before there would be an impact at under 14 level.

"How did the other counties manage? How do Tyrone stay seriously competitive for the past 15-20 years? How do Kerry stay competitive? Well I think in fairness to Kerry and Tyrone, and to Mayo, they put huge effort into their schools and well Tyrone certainly put huge effort into their secondary schools and they have a number of seriously competitive secondary schools. They put huge emphasis into putting former players - a lot of them are teachers - into coaching in their schools. Meath aren't remotely as organised at that level."

It is a point picked up on by GAA president Aogán ó Fearghaíl. "There's no doubt that this is one of the best Dublin teams we have seen. That is the reality. You can't wait for the big wheel to turn and find Dublin will get worse and we will get better. That will not happen. You can look at Ulster and Connacht counties, with very small populations, like Roscommon, look at what Fermanagh do: they work very hard, they put in coaching programmes, they link every school, they make sure they target every single national school and have clubs attached to them. And I know that Dublin have done that very, very effectively and a lot of counties do, but not all. Finance is part of the solution but not the only one. There is a need for a very strong co-ordination between club and school in the first instance.

"A Leinster county with a small population is Kilkenny but every single school in Kilkenny has a very strong link to its local club; someone from the club goes in every week to carry out a coaching session. Now there are other counties where that is simply not happening. Waterford hurlers would be a very good example; they have a very strong link between schools and clubs and the same concept between all their teams from underage all the way through. It is possible to do it, but it is hard work."

He said the GAA has given a public commitment to redistribute funding to areas where coaching resources need to be increased and may be beneficial. "But it is not a matter of just writing a cheque; it has to be in tandem with a proper strategic programme within the county."

Noel Mooney is games development manager in Kildare, a county who were within a point of Dublin in the Leinster semi-final in 2011, then beaten by 16 points two years later and 19 last year. They have five other coaching officers for the county. In the last few months former Kildare player John Doyle was added to the staff to help get a better player return in urban areas. "We are working with the Leinster Council and Croke Park to try and get new people," says Mooney. "We could definitely do with another six or seven. That's being realistic."

He was part of the county under 21 management team that over the last two years were within a "kick of a ball" of Dublin. "I suppose there is a belief (as a result) in those two (Kildare) dressing rooms. OK, they (Dublin) have the cup and everything, but for us, as players going forward, we have now seen that the gap is not massive. Unfortunately, some of the older players have taken a trouncing."

Mooney supports the idea of cross-border games to give club players a more varied and competitive programme. A major issue that keeps cropping up is the new rule preventing players from playing adult football in the year that they turn 17, which is hampering clubs that are tight on numbers. Another scourge is the drain of talent, particularly acute in Kildare, to Australia.

"It is a catastrophe," says Mooney. "If we get three players through (to senior county) every year that is success. That is where we keep building. If one third of that is being taken every time, it is difficult. Daniel Flynn and Paul Cribbin both came back from Australia but it took a big toll on them over there, on their bodies. Look at Tommy Walsh as well; it is very difficult to make that transition back."

John Doyle retired in April 2014 and played his last Leinster Championship game in the heavy 2013 semi-final defeat to Dublin, 4-16 to 1-9, in which Dublin had 11 clear goalscoring chances. "The wheels came off the wagon for us in 2013. At that stage I wouldn't have felt they were unbeatable, that we were that far behind them. On the day I think we were very poor, and Dublin are a team, if you are poor, they are ruthless. There is a lot of talk about Dublin, like why don't we give Dublin the Sam Maguire now, but I don't really buy into that.

"I read Jim McGuinness's book and he was on about the same thing, in relation to Tyrone and Armagh, and he was fed up listening to it. These are not men made of steel; in other words, if you cut them they bleed, and you have to change that mentality. Dublin are a fantastic team and when everyone else buys into that you are beaten before you go out."

In his role as a community participation officer, Doyle sees the challenges they face in trying to increase numbers playing. He recalls times as a kid in Allenwood when he had no appetite for going to the GAA pitch but his upbringing made him feel he had to. This is no longer a safety net but there were times, too, when the GAA did not have the mass and broad appeal in Dublin it does now.

Gerry McEntee heads to Croke Park today; what does he want to see?

"I want to see signs that this (Meath) team is improving and signs that it is developing and I don't know what the outcome of the match will be. Dublin are raging odds on and I can see why that's the case. But I would like to see evidence from the group that they have made significant progress."

Could you see them winning? "They'll have to get goals. And that's a question I don't know the answer to. If you say to me do Kerry for example, or Tyrone or Donegal or Mayo. . . do they think that Dublin are unbeatable? The answer is, of course, they don't. So it is up to Meath and the other teams to come up to that level. The discrepancy between Meath and Dublin is hugely in favour of Dublin in population, funding and player capacity. That is my agenda. This is not a level playing field."

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