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Sunday 22 October 2017

Dub talk can wait, we must keep eye on Louth - Reilly

New Meath legacy can only be built on 'honesty and hard work', says captain

Meath’s Graham Reilly. Photo: Sportsfile
Meath’s Graham Reilly. Photo: Sportsfile

In many ways, it's an impossible conundrum for Graham Reilly. His only focus is Louth and yet everyone wants to talk about the Dubs.

He can't look beyond Parnell Park on Sunday - not just because it's Meath's next game, their first in Leinster, but a derby that screams 'danger'.

But Reilly is also the captain of a Meath team under new management that is "trying to build our own legacy".

And that can only be achieved if they become a genuine challenger to Dublin - not just a pseudo-pretender whose only calling card is a ferocious rivalry from yesteryear. Thus, whenever a Meath footballer is asked about their Leinster SFC ambitions, every question is framed is a Sky Blue hue.

"Everyone talks about Dublin winning Leinster comfortably - but they're beating other teams in the country comfortably," Reilly points out.

"It's not just Meath or Kildare that they're thumping over the last couple of years. It's teams in Connacht and Ulster and Munster that they're doing it to too. Maybe not as (big a) margin, but they're still winning games. They're the All-Ireland champions, so they're obviously going to be tough to beat.

Focus

"But we can't look at Dublin at the moment. We've got to focus on Louth. It's jumping the gun to say Meath are going to play Dublin in a Leinster final - but if we do get there, I think this team is in better shape to really have a go at them."

Clearly, as the results underline, that hasn't been the case over the past half-decade. Under Seamus McEnaney, in 2012, they came with a late burst to only lose by three whereas the performance under Mick O'Dowd a year later was more consistently defiant even if it ended in a seven-point loss.

Yet a 16-point Leinster final horror show in 2014 and last summer's drab ten-point defeat reaffirmed a depressing chasm. Reilly has soldiered through all these (mis)matches. His candour is refreshing as he reflects on what Meath have been missing, but he's optimistic that Andy McEntee's appointment heralds a more optimistic era.

"They're trying to bring an honesty and a hard-working Meath team that hasn't been there for the last number of years," he explains. "And hopefully we'll see it come the summer, a bit of it, but they're there for three or four years so you mightn't see all of it this year."

What, exactly, has been missing?

"It's hard to put a finger on it. Looking from the outside in, you'd think the Meath team aren't as physical and as strong as they were in the past," he begins. "That's a bit unfair on us as players, because we have been working very hard to get to that level.

"But the game has changed. The teams of the '80s and the '90s would have built around a very-hard working team and honesty - and hitting lads, if you like, to get the ball!

"That's gone now, you can't really do that any more because you'd be on the sideline very quickly. So Andy's trying to bring that edge … there's a fine line between stepping over it and not, and I think definitely towards the latter end of the league we saw that edge. When we work hard, we're a match for most teams in the country."

McEntee's mission is predicated not just on making Meath physically tougher but mentally stronger too.

That latter trait has been questioned by a tendency (underlined in last year's league against Cavan and Galway, plus the qualifiers against Derry) to surrender emphatic half-times leads.

Last March, though, it was Meath's turn to force a draw from nine down in Cork. Yet, even that day, the new boss was publicly scathing of their failure to push on and secure the victory.

"He was very critical of us against Cork, and we responded by going out and kicking Fermanagh off the pitch, and Clare the following week," says Reilly. "I don't mind, personally, and I'm sure the rest of the lads don't mind if you get questioned. That's what you want to be doing.

"The Cork game, the first 30-40 minutes, wasn't good enough. We only played for 20 minutes and still came away with a draw. He is instilling that honesty ... and if you're not going to be honest and hard-working you just won't be on the team. Simple as."

Reilly is hugely honoured by the armband, albeit he still views Donal Keogan as "my captain, he's such a leader". He wants to lead this team to success and believes they can get it. But he can't make any promises about this season, not with Louth on the horizon and you-know-who casting a blue shadow over everything.

"He (McEntee) is implementing a system and a game-plan that we're starting to understand. It's going to take time. Are we going to win Leinster, are we going to beat Dublin? We don't know, like. The only game we're focussing on now is the fourth of June."

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