When Gerry McEntee first arrived on the Meath scene as a player in the mid-1970s, he stepped straight into the slipstream of Dublin.
Just like now, Meath found Dublin to be virtually unbreakable in those years and lost five Leinster finals to their neighbours before finally ending a 16-year wait for success in 1986.
By that stage, McEntee was one of the leaders on the Meath team and went on to backbone All-Ireland wins in 1987 and 1988 as the most uncompromising of midfield generals.
More recently, he has become involved with the Meath management team, as a selector to manager Andy McEntee, his younger brother.
A couple of fire and brimstone characters, the McEntees were tipped to bring back some badly needed steel to the Meath team, though Gerry took the kid gloves approach in his first meeting with the players last winter, harking back to those early days of the ‘70s and assuring new leaders would emerge.
“It’s interesting, that’s an interesting subject,” said Andy on the issue of leadership. “Gerry spoke to the lads and he said, ‘lookit when he was involved with Meath at first there weren’t too many leaders’.
“Meath were losing the first round of Leinster to Wexford and to Longford and he said, ‘There were no leaders there’. He talked about going down to Mayo and playing a league match where they scored two points for the whole match.
“He said, ‘Leaders emerge, as you start to work harder, leaders emerge’, and I’m finding the exact same thing now. We’ve got enough leaders. I’ve no issue with that. Fellas need to take responsibility for their preparation and for their performance and they need to be accountable to each other and, by and large, we’re getting there. Lads are being pretty honest with each other so far.”
Andy, who managed the Meath minors to the All-Ireland final in 2012 and Ballyboden St Enda’s to All-Ireland club success last year, inherited a panel with a penchant for throwing away big leads.
Those close to the former Meath player say he was greatly frustrated by the inability of Meath teams to see out Championship games in recent seasons, most notably against Westmeath when they tossed away a nine-point lead in the 2015 Championship.
Last year, they exited the qualifiers after coughing up a big lead against Derry. There were several other painful examples of the trait too.
It’s too early to say if Meath have overcome this problem though coming from nine points down to draw with Cork in the league in March was a positive, even if they probably should have won the game in the end.
County legend Colm O’Rourke stated before last year’s championship that it was the best prepared Meath team ever, though captain Graham Reilly admitted they perhaps weren’t fit enough, leading to those giant turnarounds.
“In the past two or three years, we’ve had healthy leads slip and obviously that (fitness) could be a problem, endurance could have been a problem,” said Reilly.
John Coghlan is the man McEntee turned to solve that problem. Coghlan, a Dubliner, has worked closely with McEntee teams in the past and is currently employed by the Meath County Board having returned from China where he was coaching Olympic sprinters.
“There’s days that you’d give John the ‘F’ word because of how hard he pushes you,” said Reilly. “The gym programmes he gives you, the speed work, the endurance, it’s all there. It’s top class.”
McEntee sees the fitness expert as a vital cog in making Meath great again. “John has worked with international sprinters, guys who have competed on the world stage,” said McEntee. “He trained the first Asian runner to run sub-10 seconds (for 100 metres) so that’s the quality of guy we have on board. As far as I’m concerned, he’s as good at what he does as anybody around.”
It’s all, undoubtedly, with Dublin in mind though the project will suffer a giant setback if Meath lose to Louth tomorrow. That hasn’t happened since 1975 but this is the ultimate banana skin encounter against a rival county that followed back to back promotions with a gutsy win over Wicklow at Parnell Park, tomorrow’s venue.
“Can we win a Leinster championship?” McEntee asked. “Sure. Can it be done this year? I don’t know, is the answer. Until we’re stuck in the middle of it, you just don’t know where you’re at. We’ll soon find out.”
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