'We are in bonus territory'
The feeling in Meath is that today's final comes too early in the team's development, writes Dermot Crowe
AN uncommon degree of fatalism accompanies Meath to their latest summer adventure with old rivals Dublin. It is not some faux concern designed to disarm their opponents but a genuine fear of what might ensue if the form lines hold true. On one side you have the Division 1 league champions, who gutted Kildare and Westmeath in the championship. On the other you have Meath emerging from the badlands of Division 3 and with underwhelming wins over Wicklow and Wexford.
The five-goal feast of 2010 and respectable three-point defeat in last year's Leinster final are not held up as of great relevance given the turnover of players and Dublin's infinitely poorer form this time a year ago. Meath's hope is grounded on demonstrating traditional virtues and finding some drop in the level of Dublin's performance. But even the most optimistic Royal isn't daring to dream of a win.
"A lot would be hoping that we don't get a hammering," admits Colm Coyle, former player and manager. "Which is unusual but when you look at the stats it all points to Dublin winning easily. We'd have to tick all the boxes and everything would have to go right on the day and things would have to go badly for Dublin."
On what promises to be another warm day, Dublin's bench is also a concern for Coyle; Meath do not have anything like the same depth. "I would have fancied Kildare to beat them. Kildare got the 1-2 start and Dublin blitzed them. When you have a 16-point drubbing like that the only reason is that a lot of lads give up. It starts off with one, then two, three and then the whole house of cards comes tumbling down."
Meath are still at a fragile stage of development, having won promotion from the third tier in a struggle after losing two of their opening three matches and needing a major reversal of fortune in Navan against Sligo to avoid a third loss that would have buried their hopes of going up. Mick O'Dowd's management team is well respected within Meath football and will have the space it needs to build a team for the future. In that sense this test looks to have come too soon.
"Micko (O'Dowd) has got rid of a lot of the dead wood, lads who were on the panel and not delivering on their promise," says Coyle approvingly. "They are in their first year and they have won promotion to Division 2 and are in a Leinster final. People tend to forget that from 2001 to 2010 Meath hadn't even got to a Leinster final. I think the important thing for Meath is they put in a good performance."
Dublin's pace and attacking range shouldn't be overstated, he feels. "It's all to do with attitude. They don't have an Olympic sprinter, there is a bit of speed in the Meath team as well. Dublin have loads of pace but the thing is how you react to it. You have to go after him and chase him down. When Kildare lost the ball and Dublin broke you could see the men in the white jerseys just stopping. So it is a state of mind.
"Micko has brought more stability to it. It's a happier camp. Some of the shenanigans in the last couple of years were a joke. Micko would be very traditional and believe in the traditional Meath way of doing things. That is why I can't see him going out playing mass defence. I don't think they are ready yet but they are a good bunch of young lads. When he got the job I said he would be looking at three or four years down the line. We lost to Dublin in '83 and '84 and went nowhere in '85 but came back in '86. We learned from it. This is bonus territory and I would see it as part of their education."
Anthony Moyles, part of a Meath team that defeated Dublin in 2010, and one that took them to a replay in 2007, feels confident his county can beat the eight-point handicap. But a win is stretching it. "Meath need to bring a certain level of aggression, and I don't mean going out and taking a lad's head off; I mean going for a ball like it was the last ball you are going to get. Kildare shot themselves in the foot on short kick-outs. I would be putting it long and hard as you can, so even if you lose the ball you are at least 60 yards from your own goal, not 20.
"If Meath don't bring a high level of aggression and determination to the game, Dublin will take them over. We spoke about this in team meetings in the past; if Dublin get a run on you it is game over. In 2007, I think they were six points to no score up and we were all looking around at each other thinking this is going to be an absolute annihilation. They were cheering every pass they made. All of a sudden we got a score and then another and started tagging it back. It ended up being a drawn game."
He doesn't subscribe to there being no hope for Meath. "There is a realisation that Dublin have won an All-Ireland in the last few years. They were probably five or six points better last year, Meath rallied in the second half. I would feel there are weaknesses in the Dublin team and of course Meath have theirs but you could have one of those days where their (Meath's) weaknesses are minimised and strengths maximised and Dublin have a real off day.
"I think they will get well within the spread, I don't know if they are that far down the line to win it, I would love them to win it obviously and love them to prove me wrong. If they are there or thereabouts in the last five or ten minutes, they could win. But I want them to really get stuck in and be determined."
Coyle sees a "lot of uncertainty" in the half-back line. "The first day against Wicklow, the two wing half-backs were taken off at half-time. Now we have a new centre back. So the half-back line is evolving and you have uncertainty there. You need a strong half-back line. The inside backline has outstanding footballers, I would like to see Menton out in the half-back line.
"Our best line would probably be our half-forward line but yet the Dublin half-back line has been outstanding. So they might cancel each other out. We have always said over the years that the only way to beat Dublin is to stop them from scoring goals. I think Kevin McStay said they had around 20 goal chances against Kildare."
Tactical considerations are less relevant in Moyles' mind than what Meath have upstairs. "You could see it in Conor Gillespie's first half against Wexford, he was taking one side of the field, and Brian Meade the other, and it was all very uniform. You have to say the ball is in the air and I am going to take a chance, you have to take a chance on a breaking ball and go for it. No point standing around; championship is not for standing around. More often than not you get rewarded. And you have to say about Dublin that that is what they are doing, they are playing with massive confidence.
"You want individuals who are there who are Meathmen and who can bring that stability to it. And with this current group you have that. All the lads were previously involved. They are all very much steeped in the Meath tradition. And there is a good sense of competition within the panel, fellas who can't get on the field and champing at the bit."
The former Meath minor manager and senior selector Dudley Farrell, whose son Brian is on the panel, is worried about what damage Dublin could inflict. "I very much fear Dublin and that we could end up getting a ten- to 15-point drubbing. That is my honest opinion; I think we will do well to stay within ten points of them. I think we are not as good as we were a few years ago. I think Dublin are far more professional outfit than Meath at the minute, more physical. They are more conditioned.
"Mick (O'Dowd) is going for the youth and giving them a chance which I am delighted to see but it is a bridge too far and it has come too early for this bunch of lads. It's not that the work is not being done, the work is being done with the players, but they are a couple of years behind in their development.
"People say Meath and Dublin games take on a life of their own, you have to have the players to do that. I don't think we have the cuteness in the young lads, we haven't the physique, the pace, we haven't any of that yet. They have their best panel of players. I wouldn't knock management because they are putting in a desperate effort, it is not for the want of them leaving any stone unturned and they won't for Sunday either."
But, all three concur, there is a sense of greater settlement and unity of purpose in Meath. After six managers inside ten years, boardroom rows and some shocking performances on the field, they feel they are headed in the right direction. Even if today inflicts one of the more difficult lessons.