It is probably beyond dispute that, certainly at the top level, Meath’s fortunes have or at the very least had gone into decline since the county last appeared in an All Ireland SFC Final in 2001.
However, last Spring’s promotion to Div. 1 of the National League proves the malaise was or is not terminal. Also, it’s worth recalling that even with all the glorious times enjoyed during Sean Boylan’s tenure, when he stepped down in 2005, they were in the same sector of the NFL as where he had found them – Div. 2.
That is not to say that there was the slightest shred of blame at anyone’s door for such being the case. It was simply the cyclical nature of sport doing its thing. Once Sean did depart, it was always going to be the case that some of his greatest generals would follow suit. Thus, Mark O’Reilly, Darren Fay, Paddy Reynolds, Cormac Sullivan, Hank Traynor, Trevor Giles and Ollie Murphy took their leave of the big stage.
Take that many players off any team and they would struggle. There would have to be re-building. Now look at the names on that list. Each of them were Galacticos of the game in their time. Trying to replace them would be akin to attempting to operate a modern tractor with the on board computer unit disconnected.
Now, there have been a smattering of good days for Meath in the years that followed. Foremost among them fine runs through the Qualifiers which resulted in All Ireland semi final defeats in 2007 and 2009. You don’t get that deep into a championship season without having a high percentage of quality players in your team. Something franked by Stephen Bray as an All Star at the end of the first two campaigns mentioned which ended in defeat at the penultimate hurdle.
Regrettably, neither stint of progress was really built upon. Apart from That Leinster Final win over Louth in 2010. Perhaps karma has played a role in our fate since.
So too, mind you, has an unfortunate penchant for shooting themselves in the foot. Firstly when Eamonn Barry was removed as Manager after just one season. Then, in an even more baffling move, clubs voted to defenestrate with the services of Eamon O’Brien only weeks after capturing the provincial title referred to above.
Having made the unfathomable call to replace O’Brien, the plunge was taken and an outside manager Seamus ‘Banty’ McEnaney was recruited. Admittedly, from a League perspective things didn’t go well – with our lads ending up in the third tier. However, performances at the time of year that really mattered weren’t too bad at all. Their victory over Kildare being the last ‘big’ victory achieved in Croke Park.
More than that, they put up a really commendable effort against Dublin in the Leinster final afterwards. That was the last day on which we were really competitive against the boys in blue, getting within three points of those who went on to win the Sam Maguire for the first time in sixteen years.
Hardly surprisingly given the frosty reception he received during much of his time in the county, the Monaghan native was shown the door at the end of his second season. Aside from the fact that two seasons is not enough for any management team to impart their influence on a group of players, apart from getting out of Div. 3, there followed a period of stagnation.
Before anyone gets funny ideas, that’s not any reflection on those who were in charge of the team. Rather, it was unfortunately a case of reaping what was sown at underage level over a number of years. Or more pointedly, what wasn’t. Though it may not be palatable to some, there can be no doubt that while the county was enjoying the most glorious period in our football history, eyes were taken off the ball in terms of underage structures and development.
Therein lies some of the reason why the county’s dissipation in competitiveness in the last decade or so. Quite simply, if there is a shortage of talent coming through from underage teams, you cannot expect to prosper at the top level. It may appear simplistic, but, look at what has transpired once Dublin got their house in order. It’s not all down to money, as much as some would like to pedal that line.
What it boils down to is having the right people in the right place at the right time. Both at Co Committee and team management level. As a consequence of which you’d at least hope those who matter would all be singing from the one hymn sheet. In Meath in recent times, there’s been clear evidence of when that has been the case, and when it hasn’t.
Appointing Andy McEntee at the end of 2016 as senior manager was absolutely the right decision. Remember, it was the Minor team he guided who, in qualifying for the All Ireland MFC Final of 2012, planted the first green shoots of recovery. Which last spring yielded discernible progress in the form of the county currently competing in the top tier of the National League for the first time in 13 years.
More than that, as is often the case in these situations, what the class of 2012 also did was light a torch for those coming behind them. Which resulted in the annexation of Leinster U-17 titles in 2017 and 2018. Already, those teams have began to bear fruit at a higher level with Dunshaughlin’s Matthew Costello having made the breakthrough onto the senior panel. It seems certain that more of his contemporaries will join him in due course. Perhaps foremost among them his clubmate Luke Mitchell.
A Lot Done – More To Do
Transition to Div. 1 football was never going to be easy. There were always going to be bumps in the road. It’s probably fairly well known at this stage that I don’t get to as many games as used to be the case – or as is desired. However, with the aid of modern technology, at the very least, part of all Meath’s games tend to be seen.
With the exception of the Donegal game, they haven’t looked out of place in the top tier by any means. And even at that, the two penalties Declan Bonner’s team were gifted at Pairc Tailteann were dubious in nature at best. That said, it must be acknowledged that it’s very much a case of a lot done, more to do.
Yes, commendable progress has been made. Merely getting into the division represented progress in itself. However, the jump in standard needed to give oneself a fighting chance of survival at the top table manifests itself very rapidly. Certainly, giving the likes of Kerry an eight point head start simply won’t cut it.
For all that, patience and perspective and required to give a fair judgement on Meath’s current standing. After the calamitous start against Peter Keane’s side, the manner in which they played themselves back into the game showed what they were capable of. It’s not much use, though, if, as also against Mayo and in several games last season, they can’t develop the ruthless streak needed to put teams away at this level.
In Donal Keogan (pictured above), Seamus Lavin, Conor McGill and Bryan Menton, Meath possess some of the finest players in the game presently. No apologies will ever be made for accentuating the positive. It has to be done – for reasons that far outweigh the results of football matches. But it must be realised that, with regards to where this team wants and has the potential to end up, they are still very much a work in progress.
Something not at all helped by what fully qualifies as an injury crisis. Last season, it could reasonably be argued that they over-achieved considering the resources at their disposal. One thing they certainly didn’t need was losing troops of the calibre of Lavin, Shane Gallagher, Darragh Campion, Mickey Newman, Andy Colgan, Shane McEntee, Padraic Harnan, Ben Brennan and Donal Lenihan for most or all of the spring campaign.
To their credit, the likes of McGill, Menton, James McEntee, Brian McMahon, the returned Ronan Jones and, in particular, Tomas O’Reilly, have really stepped up to the plate. Even allowing for that, though, they could still do with more talent coming through from the U-20 setup.
Unfortunately, gut instinct at the moment is that this year’s U-20s didn’t get a fair chance to portray themselves in the best light. Either by way of giving their own Championship a good rattle or, for that matter, graduating up to the senior panel. And that is in no way a reflection on the players or management.
Rather, it looks worryingly like a return to the slipshod situation that saw the county’s record at underage level become utterly abysmal for far too long. Reason being, whereas Tom Gray reportedly assembled his Dublin panel at the end of October, Ger Robinson and his management team weren’t put in place until shortly before or even over the Christnas.
No club team could be expected to be prepared for a competition with such a truncated preamble, never mind a county one. And certainly not one as important as the U-20. Which should be a direct conveyor belt to the senior setup.Therein lies the crux, though, how important do people – in administration at county and national level – think it is.
Not very by the looks of things. The Meath Co Committee’s side of it is one matter, but, even surveying it at national level it’s almost as if – akin to the Tier Two Championship and the Tommy Murphy Cup – the U-20 Championship seems to have been an after thought. At the very least, whoever thought it’d be a good idea to play it at this time of the year needs their head examined.
Elephant In The Room
This writer has been professing for years though that the real elephant in the room is the Sigerson Cup. The competition serves no purpose. Football at primary and secondary school level is different in that they play huge roles in player development. What do the third level competitions add? A burden to already stretched players which obviously then has a knock-on effect at club and county level.
Whatever the reasons – and they were almost certainly plural – from a local perspective, the underage competition had the potential to be so much more beneficial. However, with a need to finish on a positive note, hope and expectation would be that quite a few of will go on to the higher level.
Add to that, given how they’ve been decimated by injury, that they’ve battled valiantly on their return to the main stage, provided they learn the lessons of the journey, their progress continues. Hopefully by championship time we’ll see a different beast.