Tuesday 20 March 2018

Mick O'Dowd takes up fight after Royal surrender: 'It's incredible the criticism pointed at Meath'

A dejected Mickey Burke and Kevin Reilly, Meath, at the end of the game
A dejected Mickey Burke and Kevin Reilly, Meath, at the end of the game
Donnchadh Boyle

Donnchadh Boyle

As a group of Meath supporters tried to digest what had happened on Sunday evening, talk soon turned to 2010 and the Royals' infamous Leinster final win over Louth.

Nothing, they felt, had gone right for the county since.

It was pointed out that there has been no silverware and no big scalps in the Championship since then. Instead, there has been in-fighting and unrest and at one stage, the clubs moved against their own executive.

Eamonn O'Brien, who had proved to be a steady hand by guiding Meath to an All-Ireland semi-final and a win over Dublin in the two previous campaigns, was caught in the cross-fire and his term as manager was brought to an end.

The controversial appointment of a first outside manager in the shape of Seamus McEnaney followed. It was inevitable that their off-field woes would affect on-field performances and Meath found themselves dropping down to Division 3.

Still, a certain amount of expectation prevailed within the county when it came to Championship.

After Sunday's capitulation, it was put to manager Mick O'Dowd that too much is expected within Meath football. In the run-up to the game, the Meath juniors had lost a Leinster final to Wexford, and the minors were tripped up by Longford.

Unsurprisingly, he came out swinging on behalf of his players.

"I think actually it's been incredible, the criticism that has been pointed at Meath," he offered after Sunday's defeat.

"The average age is 23. We are developing a new team. When we were nine or 10 points up, if you had more maturity around the team I think we would have killed that game. We didn't."

When O'Dowd's name was put forward, there wasn't a single voice of dissent as he became the fifth Meath manager in seven years since the departure of Sean Boylan.

In the three years since, he has overseen a major overhaul of players. By his own estimation, just "eight or nine" players are still involved from when he came on board.

Despite those changes, they looked to have recovered some stability. Promotion from Division 3 was followed by two League campaigns where the Royals narrowly missed out on a return to the top flight.

Dublin - the yardstick that Meath teams are measured by - remained out of reach. But then Dublin were out of reach for almost everyone. If there wasn't a sense of optimism around county, there was at least a realisation that patience was required.

But all of that came undone in Croke Park on Sunday. The result itself was damaging enough. A first defeat to Westmeath in 23 meetings carries its own baggage. But the manner of the loss was the real body blow.

The numbers make for ugly reading for Meath. They scored just six second-half points, having hit 2-12 in the opening 35 minutes.

In the final quarter they were outscored by 2-8 to one point. A county once famous for its stirring comebacks was destroyed in the home straight.

The reputation built up by Boylan's teams has gradually been whittled away. In 2008, they trailed Limerick by 20 points before going down by nine.

In the same year they were ten points up with 20 minutes to play against Wexford but were beaten by a point.

Sunday's surrender will be placed with those games in the 'Do not open' box in Navan.

Such a collapse, along with the sight of a number of Meath players cramping towards the end, led to questions as to whether the Royals simply weren't as fit as their opponents.

It's a moot point. In their final League game, Meath trailed Cavan by three with 15 minutes to play but kicked the last five points of the day to win.

In the draw against Laois in the League, they lost a seven-point lead but Meath finished with a hugely inexperienced team that day and kicked the last score of that Navan encounter to secure a share of the spoils.

When it was put to O'Dowd that his side didn't have the legs last weekend, he offered simply that some of his players "ran themselves into the ground".

Instead Meath's issues seem more obvious than that.

In attack, they looked to have uncovered a player of real potential in Bryan McMahon, and the forward unit has shown itself to be potent at times.

But it is in defence where Meath have struggled. Their last three Leinster Championship games have seen them concede 3-20, 3-12 and 3-19.

And O'Dowd has cast the net wide in that regard. Against Wicklow, he handed out debuts to four players in the back line, and then Conor McGill made his first start against Westmeath.

Team captain Donal Keogan has developed a reputation as a quality defender but he is only in his fourth season in county football.

Another defensive lynchpin, Kevin Reilly, has been dogged by injury. Finding a settled back six has proven problematic and their concession rate is too high.

And it's a problem Meath have less than a fortnight to sort out. Tyrone away was the toughest possible draw that they could have been handed. The Red Hand can still call on All-Ireland winning experience and managed a confidence-boosting win against Limerick at the weekend.

But the draw offers the Royals the ideal opportunity to atone for the defeat to Westmeath. O'Dowd's confidence in his young side is unwavering. His three-year term is up at the end of this campaign but it's understood he'd like to carry on the project he has started.

"I'm not a negative person so I would think there is more to come from this Meath team in the years ahead," he said.

Little has gone right since 2010. It's backs to the walls time again. In the past, that has brought out the best in them.

Irish Independent

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