Meath braced for another difficult day at headquarters

Royal County have suffered more than most under Dublin’s yoke but the hard work continues

Dublin’s Lorcan O’Dell is surrounded by Meath players during the  Leinster U-20 football championship tie at Páirc Tailteann. Photograph: Lorraine O’Sullivan/Inpho

Dublin’s Lorcan O’Dell is surrounded by Meath players during the Leinster U-20 football championship tie at Páirc Tailteann. Photograph: Lorraine O’Sullivan/Inpho

 

The Leinster football championship has been varying shades of dark for Meath football; their worst experience since the bleakness of the 1970s. The fact that Meath has carried the fight to Dublin more than any other county is the starkest indictment of the health of the provincial championship.

Since Meath’s famous raid in 2010, conjuring five goals to beat Dublin by 5-9 to 0-13, the teams have met six times and Dublin have served up various forms of painful revenge.

The most striking aspect of that 2010 scoreline is no longer the five goals but the modest total compiled by the Dubs. In the following summers the Dubs would use the provincial contest to post totals designed to generate shock and awe.

Because Meath showed up most frequently in Leinster finals, they have been on the receiving end more than most. The margins kept widening: 2-15 to 0-14 in 2013, 3-20 to 1-10 in 2014 and then the scarifying results of the last two finals: 1-17 to 0-4 (2019) and 3-21 to 0-9 (2020).

The demoralising thing is that Meath showed clear signs of improvement under Andy McEntee in both of those seasons. But they just weren’t ready to face the threshing machine. Now, a new year and a new decade have rolled around and with it a small, unexpected buzz of anticipation based on nothing more than hypothesis.

“Everyone knows the strength in depth that Dublin has and have had for a long time now,” Andy McEntee told local radio LMFM earlier this week.

“I know myself being involved in Dublin football that the task ahead of us is considerable. Yeah. Sure. I think playing Dublin anywhere is a world apart. It is a different surface and place and it is a different task altogether.”

His haste to dampen expectation is understandable. Recent big-name retirements from the Dublin squad and the peculiarity of the Stephen Cluxton situation have been thoroughly documented. The defence of the realm, against a superbly organised Wexford, gave oxygen to the theory that perhaps Dublin are vulnerable.

But cut to the quick and a Meath win in Croke Park appears an almost impossible task, necessitating both a systems-failure by the champions and an error -free return from the challengers.

The real response to Dublin is not so much what has happened in the lopsided matches of the 2010s but within Meath, even as the county’s population escalated with a spillover from Dublin. Last March, Graham Geraghty offered a pessimistic assessment of how the mood had changed within the county.

“Half of the Dubs living in Meath want to play for them now. But over the past few years we haven’t been able to develop underage teams that can win All-Irelands.”

Green shoots

And yet, there have been green shoots, Meath won the Leinster minor championships in 2017, 2019 and the 2020 championship, which was completed just this week. The expectation that Dublin teams would begin to run riot at this grade has not yet materialised.

“That is an advance that we probably haven’t seen since the early 1990s,” says John McCarthy, the former Meath All-Ireland U-21-winning player who managed the 2020 minor team. His team lost the All-Ireland semi-final to a highly rated Derry team last weekend.

“Meath won a minor in 1990 and an All-Ireland in 1992 and got beaten in 1993. And if you look at the 1996 and 1999 All-Ireland-winning senior teams they were heavily populated by players from those minor sides,” he says.

“Now, from any really good minor team you will get three or four senior players. So we are trying to develop those five or six every year that will be able to go into senior panels. And there is really good work being done with good coaches involved.”

McCarthy and his coaching group started with the 2020 minor champions when they were a development squad at U-14. The 2021 minors have also been managed by Cathal O’Bric for the past three years.

“Where we probably failed in previous years was that move from minor to U-21. That is where the gap existed. Some were probably with clubs where they may not have been challenged enough. So that transition period is where we are trying to focus next. Clubs are primary in this and it is a process of working with clubs to make sure that fellas don’t disappear for a few years.”

On Thursday night, Meath’s U-20 team lost the Leinster semi-final to Dublin in a match in which Meath were in contention despite coughing up four goals. It finished 4-7 to 0-13: enough to build on.

McCarthy believes that the aura which Dublin have created at senior level doesn’t really filter down to the underage brackets.

“That wouldn’t have been our objective at the start of the year. It is to get them to play football at senior level at some stage in the future. The more they get exposed to the best teams in Leinster or the rest of the country the better for their development. If that team happens to be Dublin in a certain year, great. It could be Kildare another year. The Dublin thing gives them a great incentive. But ultimately it is a game and it is a win. I’d be fearful about getting too hung up on the Dublin thing at underage.”

The gap between Dublin and Meath remains daunting at senior level. But on the training fields, the patient work continues of coaching enough players to assemble a senior side capable of felling the Dublin beast. On Sunday, signs of a weakening might be enough – for now.

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