The bookies tell us it may not be worth their while showing up, but I can’t think of a single county that relishes the underdog tag more.
There was a period when being underdog or being from Meath counted for very little in Croke Park. How many times in the past decade have Meath teams and supporters gotten ahead of themselves only to be cut down to size again very quickly? Indeed there were days in 2007, 2009 and especially in 2010 after their most recent Leinster title win, that Meath people started to believe they may have jinxed themselves when they started the olé, olé, olé and slow-clapping craic while putting Kerry to the sword in the semi final of 2001.
With the expansion of suburban Dublin, the relocation of so many outsiders to the commuter belt and the urbanisation of previously rural areas, few counties went through such an identity crisis during the last decade and a half as Meath. I always thought that might have been a plausible explanation for the schadenfraude of that dark day 13 years ago, but it was still a most un-Meath-like way to go about celebrating the winning of a game.
But there are signs in recent weeks and months that the team and their supporters are beginning to rediscover their Meathness and have begun also to reconnect with their native resilience.
Take for example their draw against Donegal in the league. Meath are the only team to have taken anything from Ballybofey during Jim McGuinness’s four seasons in charge. That takes some doing, but when one considers that it came on the back of two bad defeats by Monaghan and Armagh, it is more impressive still.
A further sign that Meath are reconnecting with their dúchas is their decision to take their training sessions away from their centre of excellence in Ballyganny and out of Páirc Tailteann for the month of May. Meath trained in the heartlands before the championship season kicked off in earnest.
The idea was to allow the Meath players see how much the team means to the people, so that when they were going to do battle in Croke Park on big days like tomorrow they would know who they’re doing it for. Stuff like that still matters despite all the advances in today’s game that we hear so much about.
I can recall being appalled a number of years back when current Meath selector Trevor Giles wrote on these pages of his former playing colleague Ollie Murphy being in charge of a Carnaross team and asking a sub to go in late in a game. The young lad decided he wouldn’t bother because it was too cold and his team were too far behind. When the blood-letting was most frequent and fierce at county level in Meath, this was what was going on at club level in the Royal County and it hurt people like Giles and Mick O’Dowd to see such a culture develop in Meath of all counties.
I’m not sure if that culture has changed yet but the indications point to a management team with a clear vision of what they want in the long term for Meath football. There are those involved in club football in the county who will tell you that both Cian Ward and Joe Sheridan are still among the best forwards in the county but, for various reasons, they aren’t part of the vision O’ Dowd and his management team have for the development of a potent forward line at inter county level. Likewise, Jamie Queeney, who scored a Leinster final goal against Dublin two years ago, finds himself playing well at club level but not suited to the new Meath way.
That new Meath way demands that forwards roll up the sleeves and track back when they lose possession. Thus Damien Carroll and Andrew Tormey become prototype modern wing-forwards and luxury half-forwards like Graham Reilly get selected as corner-forwards. Here they have less defensive responsibility but are asked to drift back outfield and run direct lines at defences.
The trouble from a Meath perspective is that Graham Reilly hasn’t yet reached the heights of 2012 or 2013, when he appeared to be the player best placed to trouble teams like Dublin. Were he to play in his customary half-forward position, it would play into James McCarthy’s hands as it did last year, so perhaps a free role outfield for Reilly, leaving space inside for Stephen Bray and Michael Newman, would ask more questions of the Dublin back-line.
A further concern for Meath is last month’s fade-out against Kildare. While a certain amount can be attributed to tiredness with Bryan Menton, Shane O’Rourke, Brian Meade and Tormey all recovering from injury coming into the Kildare game, the mental switch-off is just as worrying. If Meath are out on their feet and out of ideas midway through the second half tomorrow just as Dublin unload the bench, it won’t be pretty.
I trust Colm Brady’s conditioning regime to have the Royals in top shape, however, and if Stephen Bray’s rapid improvement between the Carlow and Kildare games is anything to go by, they should last longer than they did in last year’s final when Dublin out-scored them 1-5 to 0-2 in the last 20 minutes, to emerge seven-point winners.
What do Meath need to do to bridge the gap? In their four knockout games this year Dublin have racked up 2-20 vs. Cork, 3-19 vs. Derry, 2-21 vs. Laois and 2-25 the last day out against Wexford. In each of these games, they passed up at least three further goalscoring opportunities. This type of free rein enjoyed by Dublin forwards cannot continue. As in last year’s encounter, Meath will once again make a good fist of Stephen Cluxton’s kickouts and will surely afford their own goalie, Paddy O’Rourke, more protection than he got last year when he conceded a goal before the game was five minutes old.
The match-ups will be crucial. Donal Keogan might have to go on Bernard Brogan, Graham Reilly on Eoghan O’Gara, Bryan Menton on Paul Flynn. But that’s just half the battle. Ciarán Kilkenny was the most influential player on the field when the sides last met but even in his absence, Meath just don’t have enough quality man-markers to cover all quarters. This time it could be Diarmuid Connolly who runs riot.
Tomorrow will be the first time in championship 2014 that Dublin take the field against a group of players who aren’t beaten before they go out on the pitch. Meath’s Meathness and their natural iconoclasm won’t allow them buy into the aura that Dublin have created about themselves.
It will take a bit more than an appreciation of their traditions and heritage, however, to beat Dublin and much as I’d like to believe that having a panel with a settled spirit and a settled identity is enough to win a Leinster championship, it is usually the panel with the largest amount of quality players that wins out. That group is still Dublin, even if it could take a replay to prove it.
In order to retain their grip on Sam Maguire, Dublin will most likely have to beat both Donegal and Monaghan on their way to September. Once their business is done by 3:30pm in Croke Park tomorrow, Dublin eyes will turn northwards toward Clones. Donegal must have an itch they would like to scratch having lost two pieces of silverware and played second fiddle in the hunger games these past 12 months to Monaghan. If we are to accept that last season was a blip-season for the Jim McGuinness project, we must also acknowledge that key players from the All Ireland-winning season two years ago, such as Karl Lacey, Colm McFadden and Rory Kavanagh, haven’t reached the same levels of desire since. We don’t know if they ever will again.
Tomorrow should tell a lot.
If McFadden, Michael Murphy and Patrick McBrearty fire like they can, Donegal will be back in business but the indications are that Drew Wylie, Vincent Corey and Colin Walshe have their respective numbers. Perhaps a radical move by McGuinness will shake things up here. The key indicator, however is that Donegal should be a lot fresher than they were this time last year. Having brushed off their league defeat in late April, they beat a demoralised Derry team in late May, played within themselves against Antrim a month later and arrive at the Ulster final in a similar state of mind and body as Monaghan did last year.
If Donegal can take the heat off Odhrán Mac Niallais and Darach O’Connor, get the established players to contribute more than they have been doing in a while and not be surprised by Monaghan’s rabid hunger this time, they should have enough to take their third title in four years.