Meath needed a huge rebuild, insists O'Dowd
In a time of huge change in Meath, manager Mick O'Dowd has remained a rare constant.
Heading into a fourth championship season, he has overseen a lengthy rebuilding process that has taken longer than some expected. And still, the work continues.
The numbers underline the overhaul that has taken place. At the Leinster championship launch last month, O'Dowd reckoned he'd handed out 19 Championship debuts since taking charge for the 2013 season. There's four more new faces in the side that takes on Louth at Parnell Park tomorrow. And in the League this year they used 30 players.
Some of that turnover is of his own making. The speed with which the likes of Cian Ward, who hit four goals when these sides last met in the Championship in 2011, was dispensed with surprised many. There were others that might have been dispensed with before their time. But there has been misfortune too.
He could have reasonably expected his Meath teams to feature the likes of Kevin Reilly, Shane O'Rourke and Conor Gillespie. Instead, he reckons he never picked those three in the same team in Championship.
"I actually didn't really realise the rebuilding programme that needed to take place," concedes O'Dowd.
"And to be fair some people would say I let go of certain players from the squad, but the biggest loss has been the players whose careers have ended before they are even 29 - pillars of the group.
"I don't think we ever picked a Championship team that had Shane O'Rourke, Conor Gillespie, Kevin Reilly, Stephen Bray on the one team.
"I would have thought that would be a feature of the teams you'd be picking when you are going in, but that's the way it happened.
"Brian Meade and Conor Gillespie were very good in the Leinster final of 2013 but they never played again together in the Championship. But that's the way it is, you just have to deal with it.
"We're in a county where success was tasted for so long maybe some people expect the transition to be quicker. But there's nothing I can do about that."
O'Dowd's initial three-year term was up at the end of the 2015 season. It would probably have been easier for him to step back then, particularly as Reilly and Bray would step away before the new season. Selectors Trevor Giles and Sean Kelly would also move on.
More new players and leaders would have to be blooded and a new management team would need to be assembled. In that light, and in the wake of a first Championship defeat to Westmeath in history, how appealing was a fourth season?
"It's an interesting word how 'attractive' it was but I felt it was the right thing to do," O'Dowd says of his decision to return for 2016.
"I felt if I stepped away - and I've said this a number of times when people talk about managers that it's management teams they should talk about because invariably when the manager goes a whole support network around a group of players goes with it - if we had all exited the stage at that point we would have been leaving a bunch of young Meath players who are in the infancy of their senior careers just in the lurch basically."
"And I think many of them are going to be really big players for Meath for the future. Where I would have given at this stage in the three seasons something like 19 Championship debuts, that's not going to be happening over the next three or four years no matter who is in charge because the bank of players in the main is there.
"You'll have the regular two or three debutants in a summer and that's where it should be for a more mature team.
"I think the way we responded to that up in Omagh (against Tyrone in the Qualifiers last year) told me as much about the spirit and unity in the group as much as anything.
"Going back to me staying on and the attractiveness of staying on, that played a big part in it - how we regrouped."
There were worrying echoes of that collapse to Westmeath in the League defeat to Cavan as an eight-point half-time lead turned into a seven-point defeat.
"The only way we'll prove we are over the Westmeath type of scenario is when we are in that scenario again in a Championship match and we respond to it," says O'Dowd.
"Now we didn't do well with it against Cavan in the League but we did respond to it in Galway when it went against us. We were down in Derry and we responded and we were down in Laois and we responded."
Despite some difficult years, a level of expectation remains. Dublin are out of reach, though O'Dowd insists he's happy to have them close by.
"Genuinely I think it's great they are in our province," he says. "They are right beside us and we have a chance if things go well we could be playing them. And who doesn't want to see what the benchmark is?"
Meath will have to beat Louth tomorrow to see the just how high the Dublin bar is. They are surprisingly strong favourites but that brings its own pressure. Defeat to Westmeath and Louth in Leinster in consecutive years would be hard to swallow.
"I don't think we are that far off that but we do need to deliver a run of big performances in the summer."
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