Louth will arrive in Parnell Park confident if they perform to their best it will be enough to cause an upset against Meath, writes Tomás Quinn.
“It’s all about the journey.’
That’s a line you have heard before and a saying often used by coaches and players involved with teams to describe where their mindset as a group is.
The main thinking behind the statement is to take the focus off the destination or what you hope the end result to be. The journey should be the good stuff, the enjoyable bits that people within the group will remember in years to come. The feeling at the end of a particularly tough training session, the team bonding, the moments in the dressing room with the door closed after a significant victory that means more than a normal win.
As is the way, we often hear far more stories from successful teams. People want to know what makes them successful so hearing about their ‘journey’ can often leave people involved with other teams a little cold. It doesn’t feel like much of a journey if there is a group not pulling in the same direction or not maximising the talent within their squad.
The journey for this Meath squad going into tomorrow’s championship match with Louth started back last August. Mick O’Dowd stepped aside after four years in charge and Andy McEntee was appointed to front a management team that includes his brother Gerry, Donal Curtis and Finian Murtagh.
At the time McEntee was still manager of Ballyboden St Endas who were hoping to defend the Dublin senior championship they had won in 2015. McEntee’s willingness to take the Meath job while still trying to navigate his work with Ballyboden highlights how keen he was for the position in the first place. After initial progress, Meath under O’Dowd had stalled in recent years so McEntee would have had a very clear understanding of the challenge that faced him. He would have known a number of players from his time as Meath minor manager where they reached an All- Ireland final (They lost the 2012 decider to Dublin 0-14 to 1-5) as well as his time in charge of Donaghmore/ Ashbourne who he guided to an Intermediate title.
Early reports of a first meeting with the players to lay down guidelines of what was expected of them as Meath footballers surfaced, how what they had produced in the previous few years was not acceptable and how the intention was to put some of the traditional Meath football characteristics back to the top of the agenda. Hard work being the primary benchmark as to how they would measure themselves.
The clear target for Meath (and every other team in Leinster) is Dublin. But if Dublin are the destination Meath need to plot a journey to get them back there. It must be realistic and it cannot be based on the hope tradition and rivalry will be enough when it clearly has not been when the two teams have met in recent Leinster championship matches.
The initial target for McEntee would have been to gain promotion out of Division 2, a target Meath fell short of when they finished third behind Galway and Kildare. However, McEntee will know after a very disappointing opening weekend loss at home to Kildare, the quality of Meath’s performance improved which saw them pick up four wins, one draw and one defeat in their remaining six games.
While there was a disappointment at not getting promoted, long term for this Meath team a second year in Division 2 might be of more benefit to their development. They need to maintain a habit of winning games and working through situations in matches that require them to adapt or find answers mid-game. The visit to Páirc Uí Rinn may turn out to be a standout game for Meath this season. They came back from a nine-point deficit to earn a draw against Cork. In normal circumstances that would feel like a point gained but their manager’s reaction told its own story. He was furious his team had not gone on to win the game and described it as an opportunity missed. His quote after the game when asked what got them into such a difficult situation was telling: “We didn’t work hard enough. If we don’t work hard enough, we’re not good. That’s the bottom line.”
Now every team talks about things like hard work. Intensity is another word often heard but what do they actually mean and what will they mean for Meath tomorrow?
Accusing a player or a team of not working hard is up there with the biggest slights. Hard work would be considered a prerequisite for any intercounty footballer but it is not just about a willingness to work, you must be able to work smart as an individual and as a team.
For example, if a team has dropped two wing forwards back into their own defence and are looking to run the ball out, a corner-forward may be faced with four or five defenders in his area. He can work as hard as physically possible and chase the ball from man to man but apart from looking like a headless chicken he won’t contribute anything constructive. This is where players’ game intelligence comes in but much more so the coaching and instruction from the management team. Every player must know clearly what is expected of him or a certain position on the pitch. In recent seasons it appeared Meath were working hard as individuals but there were very little signs of structure and planning. I am not talking about taking an easy option and flooding a defence with extra bodies, I am talking about a system that looks to push opposition players wide, away from running down the middle, forcing forwards to turn to allow a split-second to get a second man in to tackle etc.
This is the type of work McEntee did very successfully with Ballyboden. I was part of a St Vincent’s team that had beaten Ballyboden in county semi-finals in 2013 and 2014 but what we faced them in the 2015 championship final, when they were managed by the Meath man, they were a very different animal. It was obvious they were well-coached with structures and calls that looked to nullify our main strengths. Many of the same personnel from the previous two years were there, but there had been some clear tweaks to how they set up to counteract our forwards.
So when McEntee says they are no good if they don’t work hard, there is a distinction they must be working smartly and together or risk finding themselves isolated and working as individuals. He will need leaders such as Donal Keogan, Bryan Menton and Graham Reilly to set the tone for the team.
While Reilly is capable of hitting four or five points per game, often picking up possession in the loose or broken play and carrying direct at the goals, one of his primary roles is in the first defensive wall Louth will hit. Too often in recent years it seems as though he is happy to save his hard running for going forward, rarely would you see him run with the same intent chasing a man or looking to cut off a running lane. If he and his teammates can work to a system around the middle third it will take a lot of pressure off his defenders.
With the journey for Meath throwing up Louth as a first step, in the past this may have been seen as a tune-up for a later Leinster meeting with Dublin. But that is now not the case. Louth carry a severe threat to Meath and while they will feel they underperformed in their championship opener against Wicklow, they will know there is more in them.
Louth have already turned Meath over this year in the O’Byrne Cup semi-final and while some may look to write that off as insignificant pre-season competition, that wasn’t the case this season. While McEntee has the challenge to show he is a good intercounty manager, I believe Louth boss Colin Kelly has already established that fact. Louth had an excellent league campaign, gaining promotion from Division 3 while playing an exciting brand of football. The former corner-forward has stated his preference for a skills-focused coaching approach and you can see that in the comfort of his players when in possession. While they maintain their fitness and strength levels required for inter-county football, the priority is on work with the ball and decision-making in game situations.
Louth will have no fear of Meath and will arrive in Parnell Park confident if they perform to their best it will be enough to cause an upset. McEntee will hope Meath can match whatever comes at them and this will become one of those significant points on a journey.
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