Martin O’Connell travelled around Meath enough this past week to gauge the mood of the county.
What he heard saddened the four-time All-Star. “People have been saying if we hold Dublin to 10 points it would be brilliant. I don’t think Mick O’Dowd will be thinking that way. Any manager will be hoping if they beat the other team by 10 points it would be brilliant. But that’s the talk around Meath, that if we hold them to 10 or 12 points, it would be fantastic.”
Indeed, O’Dowd mightn’t share that view but it would be naive to believe Dublin’s realisation of its strength is the sole reason why their graph has become inversely proportional to Meath’s.
Now in his fourth season in charge, O’Dowd’s “rip it up and start again” policy has yet to show any sign of abating. It could never be said the Dublin team under Jim Gavin has been a cold house to young blood yet a third of the side that lost to Meath in 2010 are in line to start tomorrow’s semi-final. In contrast, Graham Reilly is likely to be Meath’s only survivor from that almost surreal afternoon.
Overhaul or upheaval? It depends on your point of view but as O’Dowd, appointed two days after Gavin in October 2012, has remained Meath have fallen deeper into Dublin’s shadow from a seven-point defeat in the 2013 Leinster final to a 16-point loss in the following year’s decider to failing to live up to their side of the bargain in making the final last season.
Much like Cork now rue jettisoning so much experience in the autumn of 2013, there is a sense in Meath that O’Dowd dropped too many stalwarts. The likes of Joe Sheridan, Cian Ward, Brian Farrell and Caoimhin King were cast aside as O’Dowd went back to the drawing board. That would have been permissible if further erosion of Meath’s bank of experience didn’t follow. The retirements of Seamus Kenny, Eoghan Harrington and Brian Meade in 2014, and then Stephen Bray and Kevin Reilly last season have been crippling. Bryan Menton is another who is missed.
It was apparent from early doors that O’Dowd was attempting to build a team for Croke Park based on speed, speed, and more speed. That still seems to be the case as do the reasons or excuses O’Dowd has been making for his work.
After bowing out of the championship in 2014, O’Dowd called for patience as he mentioned key players being sidelined by injury: “People need to remember that probably half the team is playing either their first or second championship season with Meath.”
He was humming the same tune after losing to Tyrone last year: “This Meath team is doing all it can, in the context of having its most influential players sitting on the bench for the last two seasons. I don’t think people who are so quick to criticise the team actually understand that.”
Reasoning last year’s second-half semi-final capitulation to Westmeath, O’Dowd mentioned only eight or nine players remained from when he took charge. “I think actually it’s been incredible, the criticism that has been pointed at Meath. Average age is 23. We are developing a new team. When we were nine or 10 points up, if you had more maturity around the team, I think we would have killed that game. We didn’t.”
This year, O’Dowd introduced eight more new faces to add to the 20 he had brought in between 2013 and ’15. In deciding to stay on, he felt a sense of duty to those to whom he had given their head. “If we had all exited the stage at that point, we would have been leaving a bunch of young Meath players who are in the infancy of their senior careers just in the lurch basically.”
But just how much was O’Dowd motivated by self-preservation? A three-year plan to become a top eight team has now become a five-year strategy. It hasn’t been forgotten he was the only person to put his name forward to succeed Seamus McEnaney, but the good will has been drowned by a sense of reality that his talk about the future has grown cheap.
Obviously, the county’s close geographical proximity to Dublin hasn’t helped. “Unfortunately, we’re probably playing the best team in the country at the moment,” says O’Connell. “Hopefully, things might go wrong for them and things will go right for Meath. I don’t think they will fear Dublin one bit. They can’t because if they do, they might as well not go into it at all. I don’t care what the supporters and ex-Meath players are saying.
“I think the players and management team will go in very focused but a lot will have to go right for Meath and a lot go wrong for Dublin.”
Dublin’s ascension, as significant as it has been, can’t cloud the instability in Meath.
“One of the things that we’ve achieved this year is that we’ve reconnected with the Meath people,” said O’Dowd after losing to Tyrone in the fourth round of the 2013 qualifiers. “People believe in this team again and that was an important step that had to be made this year.”
That symmetry isn’t so clear anymore as more supporters recognise there is no time like the present.