Time for Royals to make top-six jump - Mick O'Dowd
MICK O'DOWD surveys the age profile of his key Royal henchmen and declares: "I have no doubt that the best is yet to come from this group of players."
The big question for Meath fans raised on a staple diet of 1980s and '90s silverware: will it be this summer or at some future unspecified juncture?
On Sunday, their team opens its latest championship assault with that rarest of phenomena - a home fixture in the Leinster SFC. It hasn't happened since 1995, and very few outsiders are expecting lowly Wicklow to provide much in the way of Páirc Tailteann fireworks.
O'Dowd pays due deference to their Division Four rivals, harking back to Meath's good fortune in escaping Aughrim two summers ago. He also has a handful of injuries (afflicting Bryan Menton, Mickey Newman, Shane O'Rourke, Conor Gillespie and Kevin Reilly) to help guard against complacency.
However, the neutral consensus remains that if Meath are to harbour any serious pretensions about threatening Dublin's Leinster monopoly, they need to be making an emphatic statement against Johnny Magee's minnows.
Even O'Dowd, when the discussion moves beyond this weekend to big-picture reflections on where Meath are heading, speaks like a manager who knows the time for transition is over.
"The obvious next target for us is to break into that top six. We need to be doing that," he stresses.
"I would like to think that compared to this time last year, we are further on right now. Now, we haven't kicked a ball in the championship so the proof will be in the pudding."
But what of the perception that Meath have an easy route to a fourth consecutive Leinster final?
"I'd imagine the reality is that everybody on the other side to Dublin are seeing this as an opportunity to get to a Leinster final.
"We just went through the injuries and the amount of young players coming through so, with all that going on, our only focus is the first round of the championship, 100 per cent."
O'Dowd pays "little attention" to all the talk that Dublin are miles ahead of the rest in Leinster, adding: "I'm not saying it's something that doesn't need to be debated but certainly, with us, we are focussing on improving ourselves and getting into the top six."
So, how is that stated mission proceeding?
"I'm really happy with where the team are at," he enthuses. "The average age of the team is 23. There was a huge amount of change from the first list of players that I got ... I think there are seven U21s in the 30 this year and a few lads who have just gone out of under-21.
"If you look at any of the really top six teams, their key men are in that age bracket of 24 to 29. Of course we have fellas like Stephen Bray, Kevin Reilly and those players who have been through the mill … but the key lads we have are still coming on the cusp of that."
The Leinster championship remains "incredibly important" to anyone who wears the Meath jersey, he stresses. Yet, against the backdrop of Dublin's domination, they might have to bridge that top-six gap via a more circuitous route.
So, is football in August the minimum aim for 2015?
"Yeah," he confirms. Anything less would be disappointing? "I think it would."
Time to take that leap …