Sunday 17 November 2019

What did Meath expect?

They haven’t won a Leinster U-21 title since 2001, an All-Ireland U-21 since 1993 or an All-Ireland minor since 1992 - and then they shaft the man who brought them their first Leinster SFC crown in nine years

A view of an envelope at the Meath county board meeting at which Seamus McEnaney was ratified as Meath senior football manager last November. Photo: Paul Mohan / Sportsfile
A view of an envelope at the Meath county board meeting at which Seamus McEnaney was ratified as Meath senior football manager last November. Photo: Paul Mohan / Sportsfile
Martin Breheny

Martin Breheny

On my way out of Pairc Tailteann, following Meath's draw with Tyrone in the final round of the Allianz Football League Division 2 game in April, a former Meath footballer remarked that he was embarrassed by the giddy atmosphere which prevailed after the game.

"We've hung on in Division 2, not won the League. Have Meath reached a stage where we celebrate not dropping to Division 3?" he said.

Some minutes earlier, Meath had given themselves a survival lifeline, but since the Kildare-Sligo game was still running in Newbridge, the Royals had to wait to discover whether they, or Sligo, were Division 3-bound.

Sligo lost by a point, resulting in Meath officials galloping excitedly on to the pitch to inform the squad of the good news just as they completed their warm-down.

Smiles and handshakes all round -- Meath had survived in Division 2 on three points, the same return as Sligo.

Sligo had a superior scoring difference, but, for reasons understood only by the GAA authorities, the head-to-head result between two counties counts for more than scoring differentials accumulated over seven games.

Afterwards Seamus McEnaney, who was visibly pleased by what, in fairness, had been a gritty performance, talked of the spirit in the Meath squad.

"I never doubted them. I always knew they had character," he said. All very understandable from a manager attempting to head into the championship as positively as possible but, spirit or not, the reality was that Meath had lost five of seven games.

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In normal circumstances, that simply wouldn't be deemed good enough for the reigning Leinster champions.

But then, perhaps the real issue here concerns Meath's provincial success last year and the expectations it raised in the county.

Meath took the title in rather freakish circumstances, beating Dublin courtesy of that rare championship experience -- a five-goal spree -- before winning the final against Louth with the help of one of the most blatantly illegal goals ever seen in Gaelic football.

Those wins left Meath less well prepared for the All-Ireland quarter-final than Kildare, who had built solidly through the qualifiers. Still, it was a shock that Kildare won so easily, but another surprise followed in Meath with the shafting of manager Eamonn O'Brien.

He had steered Meath to an All-Ireland semi-final in 2009 and, a year later, to a first Leinster title for nine seasons, yet a majority of clubs voted him out. Bearing in mind that Meath clubs haven't produced players good enough to win a Leinster U-21 title since 2001, an All-Ireland U-21 title since 1993 or an All-Ireland minor title since 1992, they could scarcely be described as reliable conveyor belts.

Meath clubs haven't done well beyond local boundaries either, failing to win a Leinster senior title since 2002 (Dunshaughlin).

For all that, it was O'Brien who took the blame for last year's defeat by Kildare.

That, in turn, led to a debate over whether it was time to look outside the county for a manager, which ended with McEnaney being appointed.

Now, Meath's first experience of an outside manager has led to a pre-championship crisis as two home-based selectors have opted out, allegedly in protest at the decision to recall Graham Geraghty to the squad.

Presumably, the backroom hasn't been a harmonious place in recent weeks, but, on the wider issue, what does it say about Meath if the manager believes that a late call-up for a 38-year-old is in their championship interests? Apparently, McEnaney would also have welcomed the return of Darren Fay (35).

It's impossible to predict how the latest developments will play out, although Kildare and Kieran McGeeney would be right to be extremely wary, but, whatever happens, there are longer-term considerations for Meath.

Underage results suggest that the production systems are far from free-flowing, while Meath's inability to develop any sort of coherence in their approach to managers since the departure of Sean Boylan has been damaging.

Sides are now being taken rapidly in the latest controversy, but there's nothing to be gained by becoming entrenched.

Instead, it would be far better for the county board leaders and clubs to address the following.

Why have there been so many managerial changes since Boylan's exit?

Why has the underage scene been less productive than other counties?

Why would Meath's first outside manager feel it necessary to turn to two veterans a fortnight before the Leinster quarter-final?

The answers might well prove uncomfortable for all concerned.

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