It’s already been dubbed the mini Ulster championship, and if there is one oddly distinguishing feature after the final shake-up of the 2015 Allianz Football League, it’s the new geography of Division Two.
With Tyrone and Derry relegated from Division One, Armagh and Fermanagh up from Division Three, and Cavan already there, five of the eight counties in 2016 will be from Ulster. They will be joined by Meath, Laois and Galway – so no Munster representation whatsoever.
This close-knit community may save on the mileage and overnight expenses but if one county can feel a little regretful at being there, it’s Meath.
Not only did they finish third in Division Two for the second year in a row, they only lost out on the head-to-head rule with Roscommon.
Acceptance Yet not all of this seemed disagreeable to Meath – and perhaps for good reason. There were certainly no tears of rage
in the aftermath of Sunday’s two-point win over Cavan. Instead, there was a stoic acceptance that sometimes a league campaign is more about the journey than the destination.
Indeed it’s still only three years since Meath found themselves playing Division Three football, although they promptly earned promotion again. And whatever about the debate of needing the experience of playing Division One, there is no debating that their Division Two campaign has served them well.
Nowhere is this more evident than in face of the Conor Gillespie, now back in his midfield berth after missing all the league and championship campaign last year. First, his league run in 2014 was repeatedly stalled by the knock-on effects of an ankle and a shoulder injury; then, on the first weekend in June, Gillespie tore his cruciate knee ligament, and that was that.
“Obviously, at the start of the league, you want to get promoted,” says Gillespie. “So, in the end result it was disappointing. But we did our job, beating Cavan, then it was about Roscommon slipping up. And they didn’t.
“We actually felt we were the best team in the division, but we slipped up against Laois, and we shouldn’t have . . . What were we, seven points up at half time? We just let it slip.”
Indeed Meath finished up with the best points difference (+16) of any team in the division. “We knew our scoring difference was strong, and that we would beat everyone in the division on scoring difference, so we weren’t chasing scores. It was about winning and then other results going our way. But look, the head-to-head is not a problem. If it had gone in our favour, we wouldn’t be complaining about it.
“And yeah, Division Two is looking like an Ulster championship next year, so you know it will be very competitive. We’ve ultimately ended up on the same points as last year, but I do feel we’re in a better position, and we getting better as the league went on. And we would have been fairly confident had we say got to Croke Park for a division two final. It didn’t work out that way.
“And to be honest I’m just delighted to be back out there, having been off for so long. All you want to do is play again.
“I haven’t played since the O’Byrne Cup final last year, and one of the things I’m most happy about is that when I’m out there now I don’t even think about the knee. I still have some work to do to get it back right, but it hasn’t bothered me in a game so far. And that’s one if the things I’m looking to do this year, establish a presence and give some guidance to younger players, where possible, and set the example.”
Meath have also welcomed back the likes of Kevin Reilly and Shane O'Rourke in recent weeks, and although Donal Keogan missed Sunday's game with an ankle injury, they are perhaps closer to full strength than at any other point in manager Mick O'Dowd's reign.
Closed the gap
What is certain is that Meath now face into a 10-week break before their Leinster quarter-final date with Wicklow on June 14th. While long, it does give them time to focus on the championship, although Gillespie admits it’s far too soon to start talking about whether or not they have closed the gap on Dublin.
“Well, you won’t find that out in the league. You will only find that out in the Leinster final in Croke Park. You can talk about all you want, but the proof is in the pudding.
"I think we are setting it up well and have developed a little more strength and depth. We haven't had a full team, and there are a lot of lads to come in for a first league, the likes of Brian Power, Adam Flanagan and James McEntee. That has hopefully strengthened the squad."