Mid-December yet already the challenge of the old enemy Dublin is high on the mind of Meath manager Andy McEntee.
On Sunday, the Royals will host the four-in-a-row All-Ireland champions in Navan in a fundraising game for Dunboyne clubman Sean Cox.
Organisers hope the event will raise ‘north of €100,000’ for the father of three who was left with life changing injuries following an attack in Liverpool last April.
The issue for McEntee is that Meath are also scheduled to play Longford the previous evening in Ashbourne in the O’Byrne Cup.
Whether he will save his strongest team for the Dubs on Sunday, potentially in front of a capacity crowd, remains to be seen. What’s certain is that no player will start both.
“No, I hope not, we’d be looking for trouble at this time of year doing that, I don’t think that will happen,” said McEntee.
The bigger picture for the Meath manager is that he’s trying to build a team that can live with Dublin in high summer.
He handed competitive debuts to 10 players - Ronan Ryan, Gavin McCoy, Daniel Quinn, Darragh Campion, James Conlon, Niall Hickey, Thomas McGovern, Robert Garry, Andrew Beakey and Sean Reilly - during last weekend’s Round 1 O’Byrne Cup demolition of Laois in Portlaoise.
“If everybody that we brought into the panel gives me something I’ll be delighted,” said McEntee, entering his third season in charge.
“I have to say, their attitude and application so far has been fantastic.”
Attackers Mickey Newman and Sean Tobin are also back after missing the 2018 campaign and both played well against Laois, with Tobin tried out in midfield.
All of them have extra motivation to impress in the coming weeks and months because the draw for the 2019 Leinster champions is a favourable one on paper.
To reach a likely provincial final against Dublin, 2010 winners Meath would have to beat Offaly and Carlow and then overcome Westmeath or Laois.
“I think everybody on that side of the draw will say, ‘I’m happy with that draw’,” said McEntee.
“I think everybody will see a clear enough pathway to a Leinster final. You ask Offaly, I’m sure they’d say the same, you ask Westmeath, Carlow, Laois, everybody will say the same, ‘We’ve avoided Dublin, we’ve avoided Kildare, there’s a clear pathway there’.
“And then that gives its own encouragement to players to say, ‘Okay, if we do X, Y and Z, we’re in a Leinster final. And then you’re one game away from qualifying for the Super 8s. So there’s encouragement there for everybody on that side of the draw.”
McEntee, like several of his predecessors, has so far failed to lift the county back to Division 1 of the National League, a stated aim of his.
With Donegal, Kildare and Cork ahead of them in the promotion race betting in 2019, they’ll have to do it the hard way if they are to go up next spring.
“At the same time, if you get a bit of momentum early on that can work in your favour,” said McEntee. “We’re at home to Tipperary first, then away to Donegal, at home to Armagh next and then away to Cork. There’s definitely no gimmes in there.
“I think arguably you could say it’s a tougher Division 2 than last year. You look at the two teams that have come down from Division 1 (Kildare and Donegal) as well as the two that have come up (Armagh and Fermanagh), you could say it’s a tougher league.
“We’re under no illusions, that’s a huge challenge. But so far the appetite is good, the application is good. I’m looking forward to the games ahead; I think everybody is the same. We’ve been away from it for too long.”