Navan or nowhere for Leinster rivals: Meath and Kildare bid to challenge All Ireland champions Dublin once again
Today's tussle means a lot for two counties desperate to be genuine contenders once again
On February 5, 2017, Andy McEntee had his first league match as Meath manager when Kildare came to Navan in the opening round. Kildare were after losing an O'Byrne Cup semi-final to a third-string Dublin team and arrived newly promoted out of Division 3. If they looked vulnerable it proved deceptive. They put Meath to the sword, 3-17 on the scoreboard, and won by 10 points.
Come summer Kildare repeated their league win over Meath when the teams met in the Leinster semi-final, winning 2-16 to 0-13 at Tullamore. Meath scored 27 points against Louth in the previous round but Kildare turned in probably their best performance in the championship in six years. Beating Meath ended a losing sequence in Leinster semi-finals that ran to six matches and earned them a first provincial final appearance in eight years.
After successive league promotions they were progressing but nobody expected Kildare to beat Dublin. The day was about leaving something to build on. They scored the highest losing total in a Leinster final since 1970, 1-17, and Dublin's dominance of the province was so absolute that the winning margin of nine points appeared to give Kildare and the rest a sliver of hope. It was the closest any team in Leinster had got to Dublin in four years.
Paddy Brophy returned from Australia six weeks ahead of the win over Meath, a game he started, and Daniel Flynn lit up the stage that summer with dazzling performances. Where did it take them? The next year brought relegation, seven straight defeats in Division 1, and more of the defensive uncertainty that made Kildare a nervous wreck in 2015, the year before Cian O'Neill's arrival.
And in the summer, while Dublin went on the journey that would end in four-in-a-row, Meath and Kildare bombed in Leinster. Meath, after another mid-table season in the league's second tier, lost to Longford in Glennon Brothers Pearse Park.
Kildare went down to Carlow, sensationally, by seven points. Meath then exited controversially in the first round of the qualifiers to Tyrone after extra time in Navan. Kildare reawakened with wins over Derry, Longford, Mayo, and Fermanagh, which earned them a place in the Super 8. There, they lost all three matches to Monaghan, Galway and Kerry.
An All-Ireland win at under 20 last year, and three Leinster minor titles in recent years, should be grounds for optimism in Kildare. Along with Meath they carry the most potential within the province to unsettle Dublin but nobody is putting a time on it. Three years? Five years? That optimism has been tempered by injuries to players like Brophy and Cathal McNally, the decision by Niall Kelly to travel and the biggest blow of all, the move to the US of Daniel Flynn.
This year's form has been patchy but it has been enough to leave them within shouting distance of promotion with today's match in Navan likely to determine which of the counties has a more lasting say in the top two places. Meath are currently a point ahead of Kildare. This is their first meeting since that championship encounter in 2017.
John Doyle, the former Kildare player now involved in coaching and games promotion, felt that flicker of hope after the Leinster final two years ago. "I am optimistic for the future," he says. "Kildare is a big county, there is an unbelievable hunger in young lads to play football for Kildare. We had under 16 trials last week and I could have 200 young lads queuing up at the gates trying out for Kildare if I wanted to, and it's a good standard of football. The appetite is wonderful. You are not begging anyone. I certainly think the future is bright, but Dublin are going for five-in-a-row, never done before. It is a once-in-a-generation team. It is difficult (to match that). You have to be optimistic. Kildare are competing in underage and you are hoping that kind of belief will carry through."
Meath have become virtually institutionalised in Division 2 since the league was reformatted into the current four divisions in 2008. They went down to Division 3 in 2012 for one season; otherwise, it has been a constant diet of Division 2 football. The year Meath suffered relegation, Kildare won promotion to Division 1 on the same day. Doyle kept his composure to convert a penalty deep into injury time that earned Kildare a draw and promotion in Salthill. In Navan, Louth defeated Meath by nine points to send their rivals down.
But the earlier third-round meeting of Meath and Kildare proved pivotal for both counties. Meath won their opening two games against Monaghan and Westmeath by margins of six and 12 points, while Kildare lost theirs to Tyrone and Monaghan, each by five-point margins.
When they met at Navan in March, 2012, Meath were promotion candidates, Kildare were thinking of a possible relegation fight. It finished in a one-point Kildare win, and from there their paths diverged. Meath's Shane McAnarney had an injury-time attempt to win the match that came off an upright. Within a minute a final Kildare attack ended with corner-back Ollie Lyons punching over the winning point.
Meath found compensation in the summer, reaching the Leinster final and testing Dublin, the reigning All-Ireland champions, when losing by a goal. That run included a fine six-point win over Kildare in the Leinster semi-final which was unexpected. Meath made the next two Leinster finals, where the margins began to expand, from seven points in 2013, to 16 in 2014, the last year they qualified or won successive matches in the province.
Of the team that started against Kildare two years ago, in McEntee's first game in charge, there may only be four starting today. Eight of the 2017 starting team have left the squad. This year's league has seen new players given runs and a style of play that has gone down well with supporters. If they win today they will be on the brink of winning promotion, with the likelihood that one win from their remaining two matches will be enough.
Former Meath player Cian Ward expects this to be their "sternest" test and sees promotion as imperative. "Long term, I think even for the trajectory of the group, for the management team - Andy in his third year - it is going to be very hard for them to continue to find the enthusiasm for it if they don't get promoted.
"It would be a huge bonus for Meath. It would definitely sustain the management team and playing group and continuity for maybe two or three season, that would be hugely positive. One of the problems we have had is a huge turnover of players."
Michael Newman has returned after missing all of last year and players like Ronan Ryan, Darragh Campion, Niall Kane, Ethan Devine, Thomas O'Reilly, Seamus Lavin and Gavin McCoy have been getting game time. Colm Nally, the former Louth goalkeeper, is in his first season as team coach and reports feeding back from training are positive.
Ward feels that player careers are shortening and are now more likely to be negatively influenced by a lack of success or tangible progress. The decision of players like Kildare's Kelly and Flynn to travel, with Flynn in outstanding form last year, might not have been as straightforward if Dublin didn't have the squad they do now.
"I don't think there is any doubt about that," says Ward. "I think what you are seeing is that after a few years where they are not getting anything out of it they are stepping away. I think we are looking at four or five seasons being as much as can be expected unless you are with one of the top counties that are successful, of course in that case it is easier go the extra mile.
"Ultimately, when young players, they have a dream of playing at inter-county level and eventually the reality of that dream is very different to the dream itself, it is not always about the glory and when it becomes a struggle and battle it becomes a question of how much they want that struggle and battle. People are motivated by different factors."
Ward sees a stronger thread of consistency in Meath's performances this year. Doyle echoes the same longing in the context of Kildare's development. "The big thing would be consistency," says Doyle. "Where I would have felt that after 2017 you needed to show Dublin you were coming for them, they didn't stay in the top flight and the Carlow game was a real setback. And in fairness they deserve a good bit of credit for coming back and 'Newbridge or nowhere' was a big plus because it brought pressure on the players and management and if they were to lose to Mayo they could have been left with egg on their faces. So that was a bit of character."
Doyle feels Kildare are now somewhere in between where they were in 2017 and the low of the Carlow game. Jimmy Hyland, Aaron Masterson, Mark Dempsey and Jason Gibbons have been getting team exposure after helping the under 20s win last year's All-Ireland. But that transition will take time. Like Meath, they don't have the strength in depth to compete with Dublin in the short term. Injuries rule out McNally, David Slattery and Paul Cribbin, reducing their options further.
Doyle went through his own lean years with Kildare and his club, Allenwood, has been relegated to intermediate football. But he is from the school that believes in playing being enough. Whether that cuts it with the modern player or not is open to question. "I know from my own days there were years we were contenders and years that we weren't but you kind of had what people might call a blind belief," he says. "You went with that hope. If you didn't play the game because you thought you wouldn't win nobody would play it. The game gets a lot of negative opinion, and some warranted, but from a playing view there was no better feeling in the world even when things were going bad than that sense you had with the lads when you got a win - that was it for me.
"You can do something well in your job but nothing really gives you that satisfaction of togetherness you get on the field of play, whether club or county. People will say that in this age the game has changed, it is this and it is that, but if I was 21 again I would do it all again."
It is 19 years since Kildare won a Leinster senior football championship, as if they need reminding, and Meath's almost freakish win in 2010 is already a faded memory. Meath won the Leinster minor title last year for the first time since 2008. There is evidence that they now have structures in place that were lacking in the past. There is a long way to go to seriously challenge Dublin's supremacy but first off there is a league match to take care of. It's Navan or nowhere.
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