By Brendan Boylan,
You might have deduced from my last GAA offering that I was a little more than hopeful Meath could pull off a result against Kildare today (Sunday). In truth though, nobody could have foreseen, or even dreamt of what did transpire. The Meath players and management deserve immense credit. It is important, in particular, to acknowledge the contributions and improvements made by those on the sideline.
Surely no mentors have ever been as much under the spotlight. Granted, things haven’t always gone according to plan for the current regime. Dropping to the third tier of the league certainly wouldn’t have been on anyone’s wish list, but, in fairness to all concerned, when it was apparent action was needed, it was taken.
Most significant of all has been the infusion of John Evans into the setup. The improvement in Meath’s play – and the directness of their attacking in particular – since the Kerryman became involved has been marked. Fresh talent has been unleashed too and Donal Keogan, Donnacha Tobin, Alan Forde and Damien Carroll (in particular) who have all featured in the past are rapidly becoming mainstays.
More senior stalwarts have begun to find their form too. Joe Sheridan is improving with every game, David Gallagher recovered from what happened against Carlow and has been assured, confident and at his classy best since while Graham Reilly and Brian Farrell have dazzled this damp summer. Deploying Reilly to midfield has been a masterstroke as it has given that sector a much needed boost in pace. The lack of which had been negating against Meath given the way the game is played by most teams nowadays.
Special mention must, however, also be given to the man who has been, mostly, partnered by Reilly – Summerhill’s Conor Gillespie. Having been pitched in against Dublin two years ago, the towering midfielder has, like Sheridan, been improving with each outing and against Kildare had his finest hour to date in a Meath jersey. His maturity of thought and action is rapidly giving Meath a foothold which will allow them give a good account of themselves – at the very least – against anybody.
Superstition has an unmistakable role to play in these things also. Traditionally, Meath teams are at their most dangerous when written off. So it proved again. Think back to the Dublin/Meath game of two years ago. Not only had the Royals not defeated the boys in blue for far too long but their task was seemingly made all the more onerous by the absence of Nigel Crawford from the starting line up.
This time round, it was Kildare who had the upper hand for an elongated number of clashes. Add to that the loss of Kevin Reilly – not to mention Seamus Kenny, Shane O’Rourke, Mark Ward and Stephen Bray (for the beginning at least) and it looked too much for a group that’s gone through more in a season than many would in an entire career.
On a personal level, though, here’s one that might surprise many. That day in 2010, when Meath did what nobody achieved before or since – put five goals past Stephen Cluxton – yours truly watched proceedings at home in the office. Same story this time around. Is it beginning to be a case of when I’m out, Meath win?! Hopefully, there might be a bit of hay to be baled very close to home on the day of the Leinster Final!
Time to look ahead to that day now. There’s no doubt that Meath have made commendable progress since the end of the league. In terms of management structure and what the players have produced as a result of same. Good and all as it’s undoubtedly been, though, they are now jumping into a totally different kettle of fish.
Dublin’s transformation last term was such that they appeared to be on another level to everyone else. Yes, Seamus McEanney’s side have improved quite a bit as the months have gone on, but don’t get fooled into thinking Dublin have slipped because of what at times was a sloppy display against Wexford. This Wexford bunch have caused plenty of teams problems in the past and had they been possessed of a little more composure and knowhow could have done so to Dublin.
Meath must be wary of a backlash from Pat Gilroy’s team, Bernard Brogan will surely never have as poor a game again. That said, ‘Banty’s’ boys are on an upward curve. While neither side will fear the other, there’s that x factor that makes this rivalry so unique and enduring. Meath players and their mentors will surely relish the challenge. They will, admittedly, have to produce the best performances some of them ever have to step up to what will undoubtedly be another level.
For all that, these games often take on a life of their own and bring out the best in lads. Meath will again be rank outsiders, few, if any outside the county will give them an earthly. But this is Meath/Dublin and the form book can go in the furnace! Hope abides!