Royal revival a labour of love for devoted O’Dowd
Meath manager is determined to see a proud football county regain its place at the top table
Meath manager Mick O’Dowd: “Players going to Croke Park on big days need to know who they’re doing it for and who is following them. When they get the Meath jersey, it represents a lot. That matters.” Photo: Tommy Grealy/Inpho
Ballinacree is a bend in the road between Oldcastle and Lough Sheelin in North Meath. Tucked away tight by the Cavan border, you’d need to drive for the guts of an hour to get to it from Navan. It is a church, a graveyard, a community centre and a GAA club. It is the sort of place that tends to get left to its own devices.
When Mick O’Dowd was a kid, he lived in Skryne. He lives there yet, about a mile from the house where he grew up. As a child of the ’80s, he was spoiled. Says so himself. The most natural thing in the world back then was go down to the pitch and watch Colm O’Rourke and Liam Hayes play football. This is what life was and it played a big part in deciding what life would become.
They’ve never had that in Ballinacree. The local club is St Brigid’s, a sometime intermediate but mostly junior side throughout its half-century of existence. Meath footballers don’t come from places like Ballinacree; by and large Meath footballers don’t go there either.
Or didn’t. Meath footballers didn’t go there. Under O’Dowd, May has become the month of taking training around some of the smallest and most remote clubs in the county. Back at the beginning of last month, the whole Meath squad pitched up at St Brigid’s for training and afterwards stood signing everything that moved. A small, easy win that cost nothing to put up on the board.
“When you go and train in these places, you get to see how much the Meath team means to the people,” he says. “I think players going to Croke Park on big days need to know who they’re doing it for and who is following them. When they get the Meath jersey, it represents a lot. That matters.”
O’Dowd is Meath from his heels to his hair. His uncle Seamie Heery played on the first Meath team to win an All-Ireland, back in 1949. He has been involved in three teams in his lifetime – Skryne, Meath and UCD – and will tell you straight out that there is zero chance of there ever being a fourth.
Wrong reasonsIn the post-Boylan wasteland of botched appointments and backroom shaftings, he watched in horror as Meath circled the plughole. Most summers ending before August, even one that didn’t still somehow ending with the manager’s head on a spike.
“Meath were gone off the radar and they just seemed to be in the papers for all the wrong reasons all the time. I was frustrated, to be honest. It kind of annoyed me. We’ve such a rich tradition and such a massive following.
“To go to Carlow the last day and see the amount of Meath people that came down, filing in in their colours from all parts of the county – it’s inspiring. Those people love the county and the county team doing well is important to them. It’s a tradition going back years.
“And I think it was being diluted by everything that was going on. People would call us a traditional county and I wouldn’t really be able to quantify what that means but I would be tuned in very much to what Meath people want. What they expect out of the Meath team. The values that you’d be trying to instil in Meath players are very clear.”
Strong placeIf it seems a sort of intangible, ephemeral place to start, O’Dowd doesn’t present it as a choice he had to make. For Meath to re-establish themselves, he reckoned they had to set about rediscovering who they were and what they were about. Without that, nothing of substance could follow.
“To be honest, they were physically and mentally in not a strong place. When I took over, they had just been relegated to Division Three and they had a lot of injuries. That gave us a starting point and it gave us things to change from the beginning. More than anything, I would put Year One down to that – getting them physically and mentally into a better place. That, and reconnecting with the supporters. Those were the two big successes of the first year.
“If you go from Seán Boylan’s time, they had a manager for one year, a manager for two years, two years and another two years. That’s not long enough. It’s just not. When you’re trying to do something that’s solid and long-term and you’re looking to put a proper template in place, that’s no way to go about it.
“I would feel that certain Meath players – some who are with us and some who are gone at this stage – didn’t get a fair enough platform to show their talent. They didn’t get as fair a platform as other Meath players of previous generations, particularly that settled Boylan period. It’s an awful waste.”
There’s a small but obvious irony here, in that it could be argued that the settled nature of the Boylan period didn’t do Mick O’Dowd the footballer any favours. He played on and off for Meath from 1993 to 2002 without ever planting a flag in the starting line-up.
As a 19-year-old, he remembers playing a league game with Brian Stafford and Bernard Flynn alongside him in the full-forward line. By the end, it was Ollie Murphy and Graham Geraghty. To survive at that altitude, your backpack has to be well stocked on talent, with plenty of luck and confidence in the side-pockets. By his own reckoning, he was variously short on all three.
“If I was honest, I’d say that I got in there at 19 and I wasn’t really ready for it. For a few different reasons, I was in and out of the panel from that point on. A lot of it was probably down to injuries at inappropriate times. I had one serious knee injury in ’98 but predominantly, it was my back. Just a niggly problem that I couldn’t make go away. That would have knocked my belief a bit as well.
Established squad“And then later on in my 20s when I would have had far more belief in myself, it was just so much harder to get into the team. You were talking about a pretty established squad at that stage. And especially in the positions that I played, full-forward and centre-forward. I wasn’t a better number 11 than Trevor Giles and I wasn’t a better number 14 than Graham Geraghty.”
What he was said plenty about what he would turn out to be. O’Dowd was a leader, regardless of jersey number. Quiet and unshowy but insistent all the same when it came to doing what had to be done. It went back to his time at UCD where for five years he and Fachtna Collins from Cork went around cajoling year after year of footballers to come out for the Sigerson team. They were nowhere in his first year; by his fifth they were champions.
“If you go back to UCD when I was captain for a couple of years, I played reasonably well but I always knew that my biggest strength was bringing players along. When there’d be defeats, I was good at keeping lads coming back. Working with fellas, getting them to keep putting it in, convincing them that there was a bigger picture and there was a goal to work towards.
“It was about building trust and relationships and pushing this idea that there is a goal here worth sticking around for. I enjoyed that end of it. Some players just want to come to training, tog out, play and go home. They don’t want to get involved with anything else. And that’s fine. But I always probably wanted to contribute more.
Settled spirit“I’ve often heard Brian Cody talk about a settled spirit within a dressing room. And I totally understand what he means by that. You just need to get to that place where everyone is headed in the same direction. If there’s somebody who isn’t, I would always have taken it upon myself even when I was a player to go to this fella and get him into that way of thinking for the benefit of the team.”
He stuck at it with Meath, eventually being part of the panel that won Leinster in 2001 and got beaten in that year’s All-Ireland. He was on the pitch in Croke Park at the end when they hockeyed Kerry in that surreal semi-final and just the very fact that he finally made it there is something he takes pride in.
The first of three O’Dowd kids arrived in 2003 and that was the end of his intercounty days. He had to put away childish things. Only some of them, though – by the following year he was player-manager of Skryne. They won the county title in 2004 and made it as far as the Leinster final. A bout of pneumonia on the morning of the final deprived them of John McDermott for the game – O’Dowd’s grimace almost a decade on tells you what he felt was lost.
He did it for a few more years on and off before focusing on an under-16 team in the club in 2008 and bringing them through to minor. Seven of them, he points out, are in the Skryne senior team this year.
When the latest round of blood-letting meant the Meath job came up again at the end of 2012, he gathered together the selectors he wanted and went to the county board with his application. They were impressed with his thoroughness but also with his steel. For all that his personality is understated, O’Dowd doesn’t lack for confidence.
“I was very comfortable with management from the start with Skryne and it’s been the same with Meath. It feels like a natural thing for me to be doing. For me, that early belief you have when you’re a young player goes the same as a young manager. I’m full of that. No doubts that I’m fit to do the job, no doubts at all.
“There’s loads to do. We have to build the depth in the squad and we have to build the conditioning. That’s a big thing in the game at the moment. We have fellas who are as well-conditioned as anyone but we have other fellas who have work to do. We have to bring our average up in that regard.”
Brick by brick, they’re getting to the point where the foundations are looking solid. Year One went okay on the pitch. Despite, as he puts it, “most Meath people thinking we were going to get a hammering”, they put it up to Dublin in the Leinster final, fading only in the last 15 minutes.
They had the winning of the game against Tyrone in the fourth round of the qualifiers but were too callow and novicey to get it done. Year Two needs to see them pass those sort of tests rather than falling just a few marks short.
Long-term thing“My own view is that this is a long-term thing. There has to be a short-term and a long-term part to it but overall, it’s going to take time. I have to be looking at it in terms of how are we going to build a squad with real depth to it, so that in those last 15 minutes against a Dublin or a Tyrone we are the ones making the difference with the players that are coming in off the bench. We have to keep adding to the squad and that’s something that can’t be done in a hurry.
“I love it, I have to say. I know it will be for a finite time and that will be it. There won’t be another county, that’s for sure. I really want to achieve things for this particular bunch of players because the reality is that 60 per cent of them weren’t there before we came in. I want to achieve things for them and with them. And also to leave a good template because there are good people in Meath that will come afterwards.”
Of Meath. By Meath. For Meath. Nothing else will get the job done.