The capital’s been good to him. He’s been good to it, leading Ballyboden St Enda’s to an All-Ireland crown earlier this year before signing off with them earlier this month with a county Division 1 title. But don’t even suggest to him that he’s embedded in Dublin. Just don’t.
It’s always been Meath. Always. “I just work in Dublin! Even going to Ballyboden was going to be a learning curve and I make no secret that it was a learning curve with this (the Meath managerial position) in mind. Is there any better way to get to know the strength of Dublin football? Obviously, Gerry was involved in Brigid’s so we know what we’re dealing with here. We know the quality of players and the numbers. The sheer numbers that they have makes it very difficult. But on a given day, you can beat Vincent’s like Ballyboden did last year and that’s what gives you encouragement.”
The Gerry he speaks of is, of course, his older brother and the former Meath star. He, along with Donal Curtis, Cormac Sullivan, Finian Murtagh, and Gerry Cooney comprise McEntee’s backroom team. Then there is John Coghlan, the Dublin-born sprints coach who was such a vital part of Ballyboden’s successful run. “I’ve had a lot of success with John over the years. He’s a guy I have put, and will continue to put, my absolute faith in.”
Yes, Dublin will define Meath in more ways than one but there is no obsession with their senior team, insists McEntee, who recently received a masters degree in sports management from UCD. “I’m not even talking about playing Dublin; I’m talking about closing the gap on Dublin.”
He knows his recent success and the strength of his sideline prompts expectation. He doesn’t mind that in the slightest because he feels it is measured. “The Meath public love their football and are just dying for a team. They’re desperate for a team to support. I think they are reasonable supporters. They’re not expecting you to win All-Irelands but they are expecting you to be competitive and show certain values and things that they’ve become used to in the past. They’re hopeful that we can turn things around and start pointing it in the right direction.”
Inter-county football is obviously a step up from the elite club scene but McEntee knows one thing that is transferable – a work ethic. “The Boden success was based on a couple of ideas, one was that we worked as hard as we possibly could. That’s our starting point. I like to think that is being transported and so far the signs are positive and every one of the players have responded magnificently. The support we’re getting from them is fantastic, the support we’re getting from the county board is fantastic. We’d like to think everything is in place for us to see how much progress we can make.”
Almost two months to the day after he was appointed Mick O’Dowd’s successor, McEntee’s Ballyboden side were sent packing from the Dublin championship by Kilmacud Crokes in round two. It may have been perceived that the manager’s sights were already on Meath but beating St Jude’s in the league final put paid to that idea.
“It was more than nice. I couldn’t praise Ballyboden enough; they’re a fantastic club and they stand for all the right things and by and large they do everything as well as they can possibly do it. The year we had was an exceptional year. I’m bitterly disappointed that we didn’t go a little bit further and defend our Dublin title. It shows what a lot of those guys are made of. It would have been very easy for them to say, ‘Andy McEntee is gone, the league isn’t really what we’re in this for’. But beating Kilmacud and Judes like that was very satisfying.”
McEntee worked wonders in bringing back Donegal goalkeeper Paul Durcan from Qatar for Ballyboden’s championship matches and his inventiveness has stretched to the Meath nets where he is experimenting with Joe Sheridan. Why not, he says. “Joe Sheridan has played an awful lot of football for Meath. He’s 32 years of age. I like to think that’s not past it by any means. I’m not too sure what age Stephen Cluxton is (35) but age is not going to be the barrier here.
“Paddy O’Rourke has picked up an injury and we don’t know how long that will keep him out for. We’ve two keepers there, we need three keepers, we’re having a look at Joe and that’s as much as it is.”
Sheridan was jettisoned by O’Dowd but McEntee appreciates his predecessor had a hard time of it with injuries. He recognises the 16-point and seven-point losses to Dublin in 2014 and ’13 respectively were crushing for morale.
“The injuries deprived him of key guys and leaders in certain areas of the field. For one reason or another, and it’s hard to put your finger on it, but Meath haven’t performed in the big championship games. Ultimately, you’re probably defined by how you perform against Dublin. Unfortunately, the last couple of times... I don’t think it was losing to Dublin but the manner in it came across. It looked like the lads lacked heart but I don’t think that’s the case. Anyone who plays for Meath wants to play for Meath but for one reason or another it didn’t happen.
“If we know why it didn’t happen it would be a lot easier to rectify. All we can do is go in there and adapt the philosophy that we’re going to work as hard as we possibly can. We understand it’s a massive challenge to get to a level where we can compete with the likes of Dublin. It’s a massive challenge but everybody is relishing it. That’s why we’re in sport. It’s up to us to find out why we’ve fallen down and that’s not going to happen overnight.”
On many occasions, Ballyboden were written off. Meath will be met with similarly long odds. And McEntee will thrive on it.
“Anybody with a competitive spirit, if you’re told you can’t do something your immediate reaction is ‘why the hell not?
“Who says I can’t do it?’ Likewise, with Boden it wasn’t worth our while turning up against Vincent’s in the county final last year and I think everybody knows what happened there. I’m not saying that’s going to happen with Meath and Dublin but that’s the challenge. Our ambition is to be able to compete with the likes of Dublin. It’s roll up your sleeves time.”
McEntee will run the rule over several players in the upcoming O’Byrne Cup before they embark on a Division 2 campaign, of which he can’t overstate the importance. “Meath haven’t been in the top flight since 2001 and that’s too long for Meath. I know some teams from lower divisions have done well in the championship but by and large it’s an exception. Until we get playing top teams regularly, it’s hard to see us making the progress we want to in the championship.”
The toughness that his brother brought to his football is something he wants to see replicated in the current group. To survive, to prosper, they will have to be more streetwise. “You’ve got to learn that. It’s pretty much a young group of players. It’s a step up in class and physicality for a lot of them, cuteness, all those sort of things. That’s why we need to get into Division 1 and be exposed to those things. It (toughness) is a bit of a tradition, one of the values we would be noted for and I would like to think that’s within our grasp.”
McEntee embarks on his dream role with his eyes wide open about the demands it will place on him and those around him. “It takes over your life but I wouldn’t have it any other way.
“It’s not as if it’s being shoved on me – I put my hand up for this. This is what I want, this is what Gerry wants, what Finian, Donal, Cormac and Gerry want.
“Does it take all your spare time and a bit? It consumes you but I suspect that’s no different for anybody else in this game. If I could at all, I’d be playing. When you can play, you manage. It’s exciting. We’re relishing the challenge and we’re under no illusions it’s a massive challenge.”
He’s bracing himself for the spotlight. His brother Shane, the former Minister of State for Food, Horticulture and Food Safety took his own life this month four years ago. In a eulogy at his funeral, Gerry said abuse on social media had upset him.
McEntee shrugs: “I’d say the media coverage is something everybody is going to have to get their head around. I’m going to have to get my head around it. Social media... my family are going to have to get their head around it. You’re fair game. We’ve experience in our family before and that’s something... I’m used to bad publicity; as a player, I had loads of it anyway!
“The last year and a half with Boden, everything has been positive but very few graphs go up all of the time. There will be dips and lulls in performances and bad days at the office and I’m going to have to take the flak. That goes with the territory.”