Before a ball was kicked in Div. 2 of this year’s Allianz NFL, the opinion was expressed in this space that survival therein might represent an achievement in itself. Now however, with the campaign concluded, that feels like an underachievement.
If only due to the highly encouraging start achieved in defeating Cork and Clare. That there were bound to be difficult days in the division was a given, but it’d be ventured the players and mentors would view it as a frustrating campaign.
Even today. After getting off to a great start in some of their matches, in the later ones, when quick beginnings were not only desired but necessary, they were slow from the stalls.
On the latest occasion, Glenn Ryan’s men had four points chalked up before Cillian O’Sullivan got Meath off the mark. Midfielders Ronan Jones and Jack Flynn did drive over massive points for Colm O’Rourke’s side, but the home side finished the half with another burst of scores which left them clear by 0-03 to 0-08 at the break.
Meath did improve considerably on the resumption, with the introduced Donal Lenihan slotting over four frees but, thanks to Darragh Kirwan and Jimmy Hyland, the Lilies bloomed in a burst and the locals ran out comfortable enough and deserving winners.
MEATH – H. Hogan; A. O’Neill, M. Flood, D. O’Neill; R. Ryan, P. Harnan, E. Harkin; R. Jones (0-1), J. Flynn (0-1); C. O’Sullivan (0-1), M. Costello (0-1), J. Scully; A. Lynch, D. Moriarity, D. McGowan. SUBS – D. Lenihan (0-4) for Lynch, C. Hickey for Harkin, J. O’Connor for Flood, T. O’Reilly for O’Sullivan, K. Curtis for Moriarity.
Referee – John Gilmartin (Sligo)
So, at the end of Colm O’Rourke’s first league campagn, where exactly are Meath in the bigger picture? Certainly no better. It wouldn’t necessarily be overly cynical to think Meath have regressed a bit.
Look, Einstein himself reckoned doing the same thing repeatedly and expecting different results was the definition of stupidity. Thus, that Colm and his fellow mentors wanted to put their own stamp on things was wholly understandable.
Furthermore, I’ll admit, the idea of going back to playing long, direct football – the way the game should be played – will always be appealing. The benefits of same were there for all to see in Meath’s opening two outings.
However, what the seven goal salvo between the two matches also did was throw a shovel full of gravel in the pothole that was the amount Meath were conceding. 35 points in the course of those two wins.
Andy McEntee was unfairly maligned for a lot of things during his tenure, but one of the (many) things he can be credited with is predicating everything on a sound defencive structure. Would it be my cup of tea? No. Did it always work? No. But with one possible exception, they faired no worse than anyone else did against Dublin at that time.
If there was one criticism of the previous regime I would have concurred with it was the almost complete reluctance to deploy a big man inside and go more direct.
The benefits to taking the direct route have already been elaorated upon, but they cannot be based around kamakaze defending. A sort of ‘You score what you like, we’ll get more than you’ approach. An admirable notion but hardly practical at the coalface either.
A major part of being successful is sometimes having to sacrifice a bit for the greater good. It needn’t mean going with a phalanx of sweepers either. Indeed, none other than Sean Boylan himself pioneered defencive augmentation years back when – against Dublin in particular – the main job assigned to David Beggy and PJ Gillic was to stop Paul Curran and Eamon Heery going up the field.
They weren’t called sweepers and the term ‘Blanket Defence’ had something to do with the flu, but the principle was the same. Essentially, what Meath need is a happy medium between the open, attractive, attacking football of the first couple of rounds and not being as open as the space between Eamon Ryan’s at the back.
On the latter point, there was a noticeable shift towards remedying rearguard frailties in the early stages with Eoin Harkin stationed in front of the full back line. When Kildare still managed to amass a five point lead by the break, the plan seemed to be abandonned – understandably – but at least there was an acknowledgement that some form of alteration was required.
Things did improve quite a bit after half time, with Donal Lenlhan again signposting himself as the solution to the free taking malaise which plagued O’Rourke’s team throughout the league.
Then again, it hasn’t only been frees which have been going wide, they’ve been coming from everywhere and everybody. Yes, creating chances is of course a positive, but there’s no point in preheating the oven and then forgetting to put the dinner on.
Now, before anyone gets completely despondent, I believe there have been positives in the last couple of months too. Such as the emergence players like Adam O’Neill, Harry O’Higgins and Diarmuid Moriarity, the returns of Donal Lenihan, Darragh Campion and Padraic Harnan and – perhaps most importantly – the establishment of Ronan Jones and Jack Flynn as a solid centre field combination.
Be mindful, though, that the last man that never made a mistake was crucified on a Good Friday. Having said that, there should be no shame in admitting a mistake. It must surely now be obvious that – while a new regime bringing in players to their liking is both to be expected and welcome – there were an awful lot of experienced players jettisoned in one foul swoop.
People including but not limited to Conor McGill, James McEntee, Eamon Wallace, James Conlon and Ethan Devine. Add to that the fact the two players who impressed this writer most during the Regional Championships – Sean Reilly of Moylagh and Walterstown’s Barry O’Connell – don’t appear to have been called in at all, or if they have they haven’t even made a matchday 26. Am I really that bad a judge?
Anyway, at least now there’s a little bit of time. Not a pile, but enough to take a step back and take stock. Allow injuries – to Donal Keogan, Ronan Ryan, Shane McEntee, Darragh Campion, Shane Walsh, Aaron Lynch and God knows who else – clear up. There’s also an opportunity to throw the net a bit wider, bolster what has the makings of a decent panel with the infusion of a bit more experience.
Of course, eventually there will be an influx of talent from the U-20s, but the longer that’s not an option the better. Because it will mean John McCarthy’s charges are still in competitive action themselves. It is my understanding that at least three of the young lads are already on the fringes of the panel.
Even in the 24 hours since the Kildare game, there have been a lot of wild and whirling words about Meath being resigned to being a Tailteann Cup team. Notwithstanding the fact that one very high ranking and respected individual within Meath GAA opined to yours truly that ending up in the second tier competition mightn’t be the worst thing at all.
That said, our presence therein is NOT a done deal by any means. In fact, participation in the All Ireland SFC is still very much in their own hands. With the draw they have in the Leinster SFC – the winners of Longford vs. Offaly and, should they overcome either of those, Louth or Westmeath await.
Three of those four were in divisions under Meath in the league, thus qualifying for a Leinster Final should be (a) their minimum expectations and (b) well within their capabilities.
What was both interesting and welcome to hear Colm mention the fact that the panel will be freshened up between now and the Championship. That is not meant in any disrespect to any of the lads who are currently on the panel, rather, that the addition of some of the younger players can give things a fresh flick of impotus.
That, taken in conjunction with the extended panel – or Development Squad as it is being dubbed – should, rather than being seen as a negative, serve as assurance that there’s a roadway mapped out ahead.
There is a template for such adjustments being made mid-season, coincidentally when last Sean Boylan was involved. In 2001, Paul Kenny’s troops won the Leinster U-21 FC and on foot of same, Kit Reynolds, Charlie McCarthy, Niall Kelly, Adrian Kenny, David Crimmins and Damien ‘Swiss’ Clarke joined David Gallagher on the senior panel.
It didn’t work out too badly then, so we live in hope!