Wednesday 13 December 2017

O'Dowd's damage limitation exercise

Single-figure loss would let new Meath boss continue rebuild and avoid Royal 'landmines'

Meath manager Mick O'Dowd congratulates Bryan Menton after the team's victory against Wexford which set up tomorrow's showdown against Dublin
Meath manager Mick O'Dowd congratulates Bryan Menton after the team's victory against Wexford which set up tomorrow's showdown against Dublin
Colm Keys

Colm Keys

There has scarcely been a time in the long rivalry between them when so little has been expected of Meath in advance of another big Leinster championship day with Dublin.

Thus tomorrow in Croke Park has the feel of a damage-limitation exercise about it, a question of what represents a respectable defeat so that the project undertaken by Mick O'Dowd and his team is cushioned and can continue without the asterisk of another extreme placed beside it.

The bookies offer a handicap of nine, former Dublin goalkeeping great John O'Leary thinks a repeat of the 10-point margin in the 1995 final could be on the cards, the more optimistic projections of some shrewd Meath observers place the window at five to seven points.

Such assessments are born of pragmatism, not pessimism because to indulge in pessimism would be to believe that there is no future for the game in Meath.

DEARTH

Despite the relative dearth of underage success for the Royal County, particularly at U-21 level, where no provincial final has been reached in 13 seasons now, and the low standard of the local club championship, decent individuals have surfaced over the last two years to offer a pathway to a better future perhaps.

In light of what Dublin did against two Division 1 teams, Westmeath and Kildare, in their opening Leinster championship games, however – and league status hasn't thrown out too many curve-balls in recent years – any losing margin in single figures would represent a green light for Meath to keep going.

The green jersey's historical ability to confound opponents on these big championship days is about the only solid foundation there is to build a belief that Meath can claim a first Leinster final success over Dublin in 12 years. And that's not nearly enough.

O'Dowd has already ticked a couple of boxes that were probably short-term goals at the outset. Getting promotion back to Division 2 was an immediate one, and given that the draw placed them on the other side to Dublin, reaching a Leinster final was also prioritised.

The fundamental overhaul of the playing style has been the biggest priority and has seen a renewed injection of pace into the team and some hard decisions and risks taken.

But the best legacy that O'Dowd could perhaps leave Meath football is stability – a tenure free of the controversies that have engulfed all of his four predecessors since Sean Boylan ended his 23-year reign eight years ago.

Like in politics, the abdication of a great leader who has ruled for an eternity always has the capacity to cause great instability.

Nothing could have prepared Meath, however, for the tectonic shifts that they have experienced in the vacuum left behind since 2005.

There was Eamonn Barry's attempts to fill his back-room team in late 2005 with personnel not agreeable to the county board at the time because of previous conflict, resulting in a proposed vote of no confidence in him that was subsequently withdrawn on agreement of a new set of protocols.

There was the botched attempt to bring in Luke Dempsey as the first outside manager, the jettisoning of Eamonn O'Brien, who had just delivered a first Leinster title in nine years – albeit in the most controversial of circumstances – having also overseen progress to an All-Ireland semi-final, and the failure by the board executive to remove Seamus McEnaney after last year's league campaign resulted in relegation to Division 3.

Colm Coyle's 2007-08 reign was perhaps the least tainted by such controversy and bungling, but even he had to deal with the fallout from Graham Geraghty's removal on a disciplinary matter from the squad in early July 2007, while the losses to Wexford and Limerick in successive championship games in 2008 prompted his departure.

It's a trail of destruction in the wake of Boylan's departure that has been unprecedented in any other county. And it has slowly but surely contributed to the eroding of the aura built up during the Boylan years.

In contrast, Dublin have swept up seven of the last eight Leinster titles through the terms of just two managers, Paul Caffrey and Pat Gilroy, prior to Jim Gavin's appointment last October and right now, they are in arguably the strongest position they have been as a football force since the 1970s.

O'Dowd is considered a safe pair of hands, however, flanked by a team that represents among the best of organic coaching talent from within the county. And he should be insulated for the next couple of years by a desire to avoid the landmines that have gone off before, during and after each of the last four appointments.

He has not been afraid to make hard choices. Cian Ward was released from the squad after the league campaign was wrapped up, while Joe Sheridan and Brian Farrell, two of the more prolific scorers in recent times, have moved to the periphery. Such decisions take an element of bravery, as not everyone believes that Meath can afford to be without a scorer of great goals as Ward is, regardless of form.

The introduction of Eamonn Wallace, last year's U-19 100m and 200m sprint champion, was the biggest statement of the direction O'Dowd's management want to take the team.

Yet the perception of significant change in personnel over the last 12 months is diluted somewhat by the fact that nine of the team that played in the corresponding 2012 game will feature again tomorrow, provided the team lines out as selected. By contrast, Dublin's radical change under Gavin is reflected by the survival of just seven starters from the same game.

The overhaul had already begun in the second half of McEnaney's second year when six debutants, four of them starters, featured in the opening championship match against Wicklow.

Above all, though, O'Dowd is rolling out the stability that the county has craved in the post Boylan era.

Even the early-season league defeats to Monaghan and Cavan didn't inject panic as he continues to find his way.

Keeping off the landmines remains as much a priority as anything.

The managers who followed Boylan

Eamonn Barry (2006)

Challenged Boylan on a number of occasions previously but had just one season in charge which began controversially over appointments to his backroom team before the county board executive, with some of whom he had a fractured relationship, decided to seek change.

Colm Coyle (2007-08)

The three-time All-Ireland medal winner enjoyed a good first season as Meath defeated Tyrone in an All-Ireland quarter-final but a 10-point defeat in the subsequent game to Cork perplexed him and, when they lost by nine in a qualifier game against Limerick 11 months later, he called time on his involvement.

Eamonn O'Brien (2009-10)

An original selection committee had preferenced Luke Dempsey but, when that was aborted, O'Brien brought stability on his watch until the 2010 Leinster final controversy blew up. When he sought re-appointment the county board did not rubberstamp it, despite progress to an All-Ireland semi-final and quarter-final in successive years.

Seamus McEnaney (2011-12)

The first 'outside' manager Meath appointed and from the off there was opposition to him. A reasonable first year was followed by relegation to Division 3 and then a botched attempt to remove him. Ironically they produced their best result after that, a five-point victory over Kildare and a respectable one-goal loss to Dublin in last year's Leinster final. He stepped down at the end of two seasons in charge.

Mick O'Dowd (2013-)

Has brought Meath to a Leinster final in his first year in charge where they will face Dublin tomorrow.

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