Wednesday 21 February 2018

Noisy neighbours crank it up

High-flying Kildare will provide ultimate test of Meath's mettle, writes Dermot Crowe

CURSE and swear Lord Kildare. Meath head to Croke Park today to the maddening sight of a county now cast in irrefutably superior light.

They'll be hoping to change the tune, of course, and end a troubling losing streak but the omens aren't great. No county in recent times has forensically examined their shortcomings more than their all-white supremacists. They have won every time in five meetings over league and championship back to 2010.

The time period is relatively short but seems longer because of the high concentration of matches. The slanted nature of the outcomes means Meath travel with a heavy heart to play a county that traditionally, save for the earlier part of the last century, posed no great distraction or annoyance. They shared a memorable three-match series in 1997 won by Meath and the Leinster final the following year saw Kildare compensated. But within a year Meath were All-Ireland champions and Kildare were still not cured of losing the All-Ireland of 1998.

Nor is there any great history of sustained and high-level rivalry. They have only met in three Leinster finals, the most recent of those before 1998 being in 1966. But the three championship meetings in two years, and a thrilling league match last March in Navan, has given the fixture increased fascination and appeal. Kildare have made a habit of exposing Meath's frailties.

Seamus McEnaney's side arrives for the latest instalment having seen off Carlow after a replay and Wicklow in the earlier rounds. They need no reminding that this will be a more pressing examination. Seventy minutes in Kildare's company will reveal all we need to know about Meath and their short-term future.

Speaking on radio before the counties met for the second time in last year's championship, in the qualifiers at Navan, Bernard Flynn was upbeat about Meath's prospects. But while they put up a strong challenge, Kildare eventually proved too much to handle. "The bottom line I think is that we just haven't been able to stay with Kildare," says Flynn. "I think there is not a huge amount ability-wise between the teams. I have to say that Kieran McGeeney has brought a lot to Kildare and they actually adore him, they'd die for him. If they could make a breakthrough they could be there for two or three years, but there is pressure on them and if they don't do something this year it mightn't happen. It's hard to see them not winning. We need to get them on a bad day and us to have a class day." The unity within Kildare since McGeeney took over before the 2008 season stands in stark contrast to the constant upheaval and farce that has blighted successive Meath managements and the systems used to appoint them. That has carried on in McEnaney's time and, Flynn feels, is bound to have damaging implications.

"I totally disagreed with Graham Geraghty being brought back as a player in his late 30s and then made a player-selector," says Flynn frankly. "They lost two selectors last year, irrespective of the reasons, and Paul Grimley walked. They brought in Tom Keague who is a good friend of mine. I don't know whether it was a silly move or a ballsy move to bring in John Evans . . . I nearly crashed the car when I heard it. What you (as manager) are saying is: I cannot do any more here. Martin McElkennon was a trainer and is now a selector. Trevor Giles, a great lad, has gone from physio to forwards coach. Too many changes.

"Eight of the Meath team are 23 or under. It is very hard for a bunch of young men to buy into something like that; that is not what creates good close-knit purposeful teams. Meath have a number of good young committed footballers but they have to buy into it."

While Meath risked civil war over the appointment of an outside manager -- eventually shelved when they instead appointed Eamonn O'Brien -- Kildare were already up and running with McGeeney.

The players began their strength and conditioning programmes backed up by a professional team of experts and McGeeney's reputation helped instill a belief that they could make serious progress and win silverware.

Meath might argue that they have, unlike Kildare, won a Leinster title in McGeeney's time, however controversially, and matched their one All-Ireland semi-final appearance, but the direct clashes have offered incontestable proof of the yawning gap between the teams in physical conditioning and fitness, in general preparation, and in tactics.

On and off the field Meath have not inspired much confidence. Relegation to Division 3 seemed to have sealed McEnaney's fate but he refused to leave of his own accord. While the management was rejigged and changed almost beyond recognition, and an apparently crude attempt by the board to recall Seán Boylan never came to anything, Kildare carried on with their championship preparations, including a training camp abroad.

"Meath are left behind . . . We have been behind the times, it has been going on the guts of ten years," states Flynn. "I do think after this year we need to take stock and people involved will have to have a good look at it. Whoever comes on board (as next manager), and I do think the right people will come on board, they have to have a four- or five-year plan."

He will go to Croke Park today with his family hoping in his heart that Meath win. To do so he feels they will need two or three goals and trust that Kildare don't score

any and have an off-day with their shooting. None of these wishes are fanciful. But even on days when Kildare aren't precise the sheer volume of chances they generate provides sufficient dividend to see them through.

"Three or four of the older players need to stand up a bit more too," says Flynn, "that has probably disappointed me a bit as well. I would expect those players to lead more from the front. "I feel sorry for the players this year. No one can tell me you can manage a successful team at the top level with what went on in the Meath camp over the last 12 months or so. You look at other managers, Brian Cody, Mickey Harte, Pat Gilroy, and how stable it is around them.

"By all accounts, Evans has made a difference and taken over a good bit by all accounts as well. Which I also find very strange. But the bottom line is the players have to give their all on Sunday. We are going in hope."

The rot set in two years ago when Kildare ran the legs off Meath in Croke Park, winning 2-17 to 1-12, and has carried on unchecked since then. The losing quintet culminated in a wonderful match at Navan last March which acted as a springboard for Kildare to earn promotion and started a period of decay for Meath ending in relegation. Two counties visibly headed in the opposite direction.

That league match summed up Meath's apparent inability to handle Kildare or derive much luck from their meetings. Kildare had most of the ball, as usually happens, but Meath stayed in it with stealth, greater economy and some timely second-half goals. They drew level near the end and the home crowd went wild. They had a chance to win, hit the upright, and from the break a Kildare defender, no less, Ollie Lyons scored the winner.

Lyons, in classic Kildare fashion, scored two on the night and offered a reminder of the qualifier meeting the previous year at the same venue. Not for the first time, Emmet Bolton, an extraordinary athlete but a fine footballer as well, showed his penchant for scoring from the back and nicked a late goal to kill of a feisty Meath challenge and end their summer. Bolton's man, Seamus Kenny, had left the play injured and it was during that time that he inflicted most damage.

Kildare also have taken over in the spring, winning the last two encounters; their previous win over Meath was in 1997. In the league win at Newbridge last year the two managers, McGeeney and McEnaney squared up and were pictured nose-to-nose after a match that had a tight and tense finish.

Last year's Leinster championship match swung Kildare's way when Geraghty had a legitimate goal ruled out for square ball. But they were good value for the six-point win, kicking 18 wides. They kicked 17 wides in the opening-round win over Wicklow. Meath will be hoping they have one of those days because they know the gap in fitness simply hasn't closed.

"Meath people will be looking for a performance they can be proud of," says Flynn. "I don't think there is huge pressure on Meath. Relegation to Division 3 -- that has to be parked; the public need to get behind the team like never before."

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