Meath need to show their mettle to get campaign back on track
Legacy of Leinster final a drawback while Clare have momentum following Westmeath win
Meath manager Andy McEntee stands dejected with his players following the Leinster final defeat to Dublin at Croke Park. Photograph: Ken Sutton/Inpho
The space between the two dressing rooms at O’Moore Park is suitably distant and yet near. It is easy to feel locked inside your own head, entirely focused within the four walls around you, and still feel acutely aware of what’s going on in the heads of those inside the other room.
It will be that way for Sunday’s round four football qualifier. Meath and Clare come to Portlaoise for the same prize and with equal incentive, only from opposite sides of the psychological edge that more often than not decides the outcome at this stage of the championship. At least if that’s what’s going on inside their respective heads.
Of the four beaten provincial finalists, Meath may well be left the most damaged, their 16-point defeat to Dublin made worse by the manner of it. No score whatsoever for 32 minutes, only three more in the second half, they finished more distant than ever from the team that last beat Dublin in Leinster, back in 2010.
Afterwards manager Andy McEntee had no straight answers (except on the question on whether or not he would be releasing players for the county hurling championship). It feels as if the county has been left in gentle mourning in the two weeks since, as well they might.
Clare in contrast have been rising again since their six-point Munster semi-final defeat to Kerry on June 1st, no great worries about the manner of it. They eased past Leitrim and then overcame a stern test against Westmeath in last Saturday’s round three qualifier. Players and management have been talking all week as if they’ve nothing to fear or to lose, which in a they don’t.
For the last two years, Monaghan arrived at this stage of the championship and defeated beaten provincial finalists: last year it was Laois, who had lost to Dublin in Leinster, and in 2017 it was Down, who had lost the Ulster final to Tyrone, and had also beaten Monaghan earlier in the province.
“Definitely there is some advantage there, coming through the qualifiers like we did the two last year years, with a positive momentum behind us,” says Malachy O’Rourke, the now former Monaghan manager who stepped down after last month’s qualifier defeat to Armagh, on last year progressing to the All-Ireland semi-final, losing by a point to Tyrone.
“You feel like you’re improving on your performance from game to game as well, and almost unbeknown to yourself, you’re finding out faults from one game to the next, so over a short space of time, you’re getting some quality work done.
“As one games leads on the other, it can take on a life of its own, in that kind of way. We definitely found that last year, and I know as well when you lose a provincial final, after all the build up and emotion and energy, it can be very deflating, not just among the boys, but sometimes around the whole county, and that negative vibe can be hard to shake off as well.
“So you really are coming from two different places, and even though the round three qualifier would also have lost at some previous stage of the championship, there’s a feel-good factor about coming through the qualifiers, and that’s a psychological advantage, no doubt.”
That psychological disadvantage is not just in the head. For the last five years, teams coming from the round three qualifiers have on average been more successful at this stage of the championship than the beaten provincial finalists.
Last year, Roscommon were the only ones successful, beating Armagh, while Tyrone took out Cork, Kildare took out Fermanagh, and Monaghan took out Laois.
Same in 2017; only beaten Connacht finalists Galway defeated Donegal, while Mayo beat Cork, Monaghan beat Down, and Armagh beat Kildare. In 2016 they were evenly split, Tipperary and Donegal coming back from provincial defeats to beat Derry and Cork, while Mayo beat Westmeath and Clare beat Roscommon. They were evenly split in 2015 too.
Only in 2014 did the results swing in favour of the beaten provincial finalists, Cork beating Sligo, Galway beating Tipperary, Monaghan beating Kildare, while only Armagh did defeat beaten Leinster finalists Meath.
So O’Rourke has experienced both sides of that sword, as has now former Tipperary manager Liam Kearns, who also stepped down after their qualifier defeat to Down. Back in 2004, Kearns was also in charge of the Limerick team that took Kerry to a replay in the Munster final, only to lose their fourth round qualifier, although he’s not so sure that apparent disadvantage will have any bearing on Meath.
“With Limerick, in ’04, we were out six days after losing the Munster final, in a replay. So we had no chance, effectively, and to be honest they may as well have not given us a go at all.
“With Tipperary, in 2016, we had three weeks after we lost to Kerry in the Munster final, before we played Derry, and this time we were ready. Three weeks is plenty of time to get over a provincial loss, to be honest, and we went into that Derry game fully expecting to get a result, which we did.
“They’ve done away with that six-day turnaround, the GAA soon realised that was ridiculous, nearly every beaten provincial finalists were losing at that stage. So it’s way more equitable now. Because it’s always been a mental thing more than a physical thing, trying to get over a losing provincial final.
Meath have a fantastic record against Clare
“I think Meath actually played quite well in the first half against Dublin, except their shooting was so poor. They had 11 shots at goal and came up with one point. Dublin had nine shots and came up with five. To keep Dublin to five points in Croke Park was is actually quite good, and they didn’t pack their defence either.
“Okay, four points is terrible return in a provincial final, and they got lambasted for that. But ultimately I don’t think Meath are as bad as they played, and again they’ve had the time to get over it. I’d say their target all along was gain promotion to Division One, and make the Super-8s. Did they expect to beat Dublin? Probably not, so they’re not that far away from where they wanted to be.
“The other thing to say is Meath have a fantastic record against Clare. They beat them twice in Ennis, and once in Navan, in the last three years of the league. This year, they only won by five, but that was in Ennis, an important game for both teams, and again Meath won. The previous two meetings the margin was well more than 10 points. So I fancy Meath to bounce back, definitely. As long as they don’t bring any psychological baggage to Portlaoise, I think Meath will take their chance.
“Clare are probably the ideal draw as well, because they will feel they’ve had the Indian sign over them the last three years in the league. And I suspect Clare would rather not be playing Meath, for the same reason.”
Kearns reckons the psychological disadvantage may ultimately be with the team who progresses to the Super-8s: “They only worry there is for some teams it could still do more damage than good. It’s a huge examination, against the very best teams in the country, and if you’re not ready for it, you might be better off not being there.
“Ultimately, you have to ask, are there eight elite teams in the country? The reality is probably no. Dublin, Donegal, and Tyrone are on one level, Kerry don’t look ready yet, then a declining Mayo. Will Meath or Clare even be able for it?”
For O’Rourke, the Super-8s were an added incentive last year, and he reckons that might prove the same for Meath.
“That was massive for us, no doubt, especially last year being the first year, everyone wanted to be there. Huge for the supporters too, and that’s another big incentive for all the teams this weekend, a victory putting them into the Super-8s on a winning note.
“To a degree the Super-8s have already taken over from the provincial finals, and teams that don’t do well in the Super-8s find that puts a different slant on their season, whether they won or lost their province.
“For sure Meath will be very disappointed after their showing against Dublin, so it depends on their frame of mind, and exactly how they are psychologically.”
Beginning with what’s going on in their heads inside the dressing room at O’Moore Park.