Meath run rule over vast panel in hunt for harder edge
It may have escaped some people's attention that Meath won the O'Byrne Cup last year and today's opening match in the competition, under a new management regime, could be a forerunner to this summer's Leinster quarter-final. Meath are there already; Wicklow have to see off Louth to earn the privilege.
Meath defeated Louth at the same stage of the Championship last year, but flatlined in the semi-final against Dublin, when the fight seemed to drain from them once the All-Ireland champions began to open up a lead. The ten points between the sides in the end could have been far greater and Meath's season ended in July with a loss in the second round of the qualifiers to Derry.
Where once the county was renowned for spirited comebacks, in recent years they look more likely to capitulate and squander big leads. In plain language, they had gone soft. That was a recurring theme in last year's National League and the same curse befell them in that qualifier defeat to Derry, blowing a seven-point interval lead and eventually going down to a late goal.
That result ended Mick O'Dowd's time in charge and ushered in a new era with an old school flavour. New manager Andy McEntee led the county to an All-Ireland minor final in 2012 and stamped his reputation on the club circuit when Ballyboden won the All-Ireland last year. The presence of his brother, Gerry, on the management ticket has helped fire optimism that Meath can at least become a harder team to beat and eradicate some of the brittleness that has characterised their performances in the last few seasons.
Winning the O'Byrne Cup isn't a priority, more a means to an end, with three matches coming up in six days, starting with this afternoon's game at home to Wicklow in Navan. On Wednesday, they play DIT and they finish their group matches with a trip to Stradbally on Saturday to play Laois. McEntee has been putting more than 50 players through their paces and will be using these matches - plus a series of challenges before Christmas - to evaluate and decide on who will stay and who shall be let go.
Indications are that each Meath team over the next six days will be different, allowing for free experimentation. There was some interest roused before Christmas when Joe Sheridan returned to the panel after a three-year absence as a goalkeeping cover. His brother, Brian, has been recalled, along with Bryan Menton, who took a year out in 2016.
The squad has been training six times a week, between field sessions, gym work and matches, and the immediate goal beyond the O'Byrne Cup is to gain promotion from Division 2. Two years ago, Meath missed out on score difference, pipped by Roscommon, but last year after a promising opening win over Armagh, their form didn't hold up. In the end, they missed relegation only on scoring difference, with Armagh going down.
Wicklow, still under the management of Darren Magee, had a short-lived summer, going down to Laois in Leinster and then exiting at the first stage of the qualifiers, losing to Carlow. They picked up just three wins in Division 4 of the National League.
It is a busy day of low-key inter-county activity. Dublin will be understrength when they face DCU at Parnell Park in the O'Byrne Cup this afternoon, while Wexford, Offaly, Laois and Carlow are all in action against college sides. Aside from Meath's game with Wicklow, the only other county v county tie in Leinster is Westmeath's match against Louth in Mullingar.
Already there have been misgivings about counties playing understrength teams in the McKenna Cup, with Donegal settling for an under 21 selection against UUJ today. Derry host Armagh in Owenbeg, with Cavan meeting Tyrone in Breffni Park and Monaghan hosting Fermanagh in Clones. An under 21 Kerry team and Clare have home advantage in the McGrath Cup, against Tipp and Waterford respectively, and the Connacht League also gets underway, with Mayo facing NUIG in MacHale Park and Galway heading to Enniscrone to play Sligo.
Hurling matches are also to be settled in the Munster League, where Kerry face a trip to Mallow against Cork and Waterford hurl Limerick at Dungarvan. In the Walsh Cup, Meath are in action not far from their footballers in Trim, against Offaly, while Davy Fitzgerald gets his first competitive outing in charge of Wexford against UCD at Gorey.
Last year's win in the O'Byrne Cup was Meath's first in the competition in ten years. It may not be as long until they win it again, but don't put any money on it being this year. They have designs on reaching a Leinster final and giving Dublin a proper rattle this time. But first, they have to decide who are the players best equipped to do it. The clue-gathering continues today.
Sunday Indo Sport