Tomás Ó Sé: 'Meath look best set in wearying Leinster battle to be second'
I've been trying to imagine a Leinster Championship without Dublin involved and, honestly, it's hard not to like what comes to mind.
Just imagine the different energy this weekend as Meath and Kildare slip into battle if the respective best-case scenarios weren't inevitable Leinster final or semi-final defeats to Jim Gavin's men?
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Imagine if the work being put in by Andy McEntee and Cian O'Neill in recent weeks was, in other words, with a view to a genuine shot at winning the Delaney Cup?
That's not the case, of course. The Dubs are about to become Leinster champions for the ninth year in a row.
Like, you have to go back to 2012 for the last time they faced a really proper final test, beating Meath by a single goal. Their winning margins in the Leinster final since then? Seven points, 16 points, 13 points, 15 points, nine points and 18 points.
So if Meath and Kildare entering the championship fray should be a big story this weekend, it doesn't have that feel. Personally, I see them as two teams coming into summer from opposite ends of the confidence market.
Like, I fervently believe a good league is the best preparation for championship. The All-Irelands I won with Kerry in '97, '04, '06 and '09 were all prefaced by the winning of league titles too. In '00, another year I won a Celtic Cross, we topped Division 1A only to be beaten in a classic semi-final by Meath in Thurles.
The point I'm making is that those league runs gave us precious momentum.
Which is why Meath's head-space now has to be a good one. Bear in mind that this time last year Longford beat them for the first time in 36 years. When that happened, the comparisons being made with the Meath team of, say, the late eighties were naturally damning. In other words, they were pilloried for not having teak-tough characters like Liam Harnan and Kevin Foley.
Ludicrous A pretty ludicrous stick to beat them with.
Anybody who knows anything about club football in Meath knows that it simply doesn't have the physicality of old and, accordingly, there simply isn't the breeding ground for men like Harnan or Foley or, more recently, a John McDermott.
So you could sense the frustration in McEntee that so much of what was being said about the group at his disposal last summer just reverted to that kind of lazy criticism. The perceived lack of steel. The mental fragility.
And I suspect this frustration really came to a head that June evening in Navan when he had to be restrained by his own players after Meath were denied a late free (in injury-time of extra-time) by referee Paddy Neilan that could have levelled up their All-Ireland qualifier against Tyrone.
Now, in hindsight, I actually believe that McEntee's eruption was a turning point for this Meath team. I'm not trying to justify his reaction, but I did say at the time that I understood it.
He'd put his heart and soul into that group after the Longford defeat and they'd come so close to evicting a team that would go on to contest the All-Ireland final.
I think McEntee's players saw something in their manager that night that glued the group even tighter together.
Like, you could disagree with what he did, but I don't doubt they interpreted it as their manager going to war for them. More than that, the performance - and Tyrone's subsequent progress to a September date with the Dubs - told those players that they weren't as far off the pace as they'd been told they were after Longford. It gave them something to build on.
I also think that Colm Nally's arrival as coach has since brought something new to Meath. It just takes that little bit of day-to-day pressure off McEntee and Meath, to me, look like a group who know where they're headed now.
Nobody's making any grand declarations about where that is and rightly so. Because I don't think Dublin are a realistic target.
They've got to just focus on small, incremental steps.
Like McEntee will have seen plenty in the Division 2 league final defeat by Donegal to keep feet firmly on the ground. They led 1-6 to 0-1 after 15 minutes of that game, yet there was only a point in it 40 minutes later before Jamie Brennan's goal effectively broke Meath.
Donegal were incredibly loose in their marking early on in that game but once they got their intensity up, they pretty much had Meath's measure.
That said, Declan Bonner's team was the only one to beat Meath in the league. People will point to the game with Kildare in Navan on March 3 and how only that injury-time Barry Dardis penalty denied the visitors at the death.
Totals But I'd be more inclined to look at the two counties' respective scoring totals against Fermanagh's packed defence. Meath beat the Ulster team, scoring 2-12. Kildare lost to them, scoring 0-6. I think that tells a multitude.
Above all, it suggests that Kildare simply haven't kicked on from last year's 'Newbridge or Nowhere' energy spike.
I heard Emmett Bolton laying into them after that Fermanagh game and I could see exactly why. I mean, what is Kildare's preferred style of football?
I watched them play Cork the day the new Páirc Uí Chaoimh pitch cut up so badly, when Cork had a kind of half-baked defensive plan.
It was embarrassing, yet Kildare could not really break them down. Honestly, I thought Cork looked like a team who'd only come up with their game-plan in the dressing-room, yet it took three late points from substitute Neil Flynn to beat them.
Coming away from that game I remember thinking that neither team had any clear-cut sense of direction. Worse, they looked bereft of conspicuous confidence or leadership on the field.
For Kildare, a county that has won at U-20 level and a group that rebounded so brilliantly from last year's championship defeat by Carlow to get to the 'Super 8s', that seems deeply worrying now.
In beating Derry, Longford, Mayo and Fermanagh, Kildare looked to have found some fresh momentum last summer, but where is it now?
That Mayo game galvanised them. They looked to have found some kind of identity. But this is a team that let a 1-9 to 0-5 lead dissolve with just ten minutes remaining against Tipp in Thurles, then got two late scores to draw, avoiding what would have been a frankly shocking defeat.
When they had it still all to play for in Division 2, they went up to Donegal and got thumped by 13 points. Honestly, they're a group that would have you pulling your hair out.
Where is the side that beat Mayo last June? What happened to all that running off the shoulder?
For the talent they have, I believe there's something radically wrong about how they represent the county.
This is a team, remember, that scored 0-1 from play against Fermanagh in that awful league game. Think about that.
Because, in Dublin's world, that's the definition of futility.