herald

Sunday 17 December 2017

Roaring Royals and lumbering Lilies agree that Navan clash will be pivotal

THE Division Two table makes for strange reading this week, especially if you happen to be a Kildare fan steadfast in your belief that the Lilywhites are a genuine top-four team.

The Division Two table makes for equally strange reading this week if you happen to be a Royal diehard, recently wavering in your belief that Meath will rejoin the ranks of genuine All-Ireland contenders any day soon.

Here's why. Meath currently top the Allianz Football League's second tier on scoring difference with a maximum four points ... while enviously peering up from below are Kildare, one of three teams mired on zero points.

But while the Division Two table has been turned on its head, does it mean anything pre-March? Put it this way: how can you say the tables have been turned in a rivalry that has seen Kildare win their last four meetings with Meath over the past 19 months?

We'll know a little more this Saturday night, when these neighbouring foes collide in a league match given added significance by their contrasting starts to the season.

Victory in front of their Navan faithful would propel Meath firmly into the promotion shake-up heading for the second half of the spring campaign. A third defeat on the spin would consign Kildare to another season in Division Two -- at best, given the mounting threat of relegation. But if the opposite happens, and Kieran McGeeney's men prevail?

Privately

Then all bets are off in the short-term, while Meath may even privately wonder if they are always destined to come out second best to 'Geezer', having done so already in a 2010 All-Ireland quarter-final as well as in last year's league, Leinster championship and qualifiers.

Watching with interest from the line as he continues his rehab from a second cruciate operation, Dermot Earley admits that Kildare's league start -- after the O'Byrne Cup promise of January -- has been "disappointing".

"There's no hiding that at all," says the veteran midfielder. "We've created chances; we just haven't taken them. It's something we need to work on. We've dropped a lot of ball short into the keeper's hands, we've kicked a lot of wides, and they're inexcusable.

"Look, it's not the ideal start but we still have an opportunity, be it a far-fetched one, of qualification. It just means we have to win all our games in March and Galway then in April."

By the same token, Seamus Kenny isn't placing too much credence on Meath's February formguide. "The way the league is structured this year with two games and then a three-week break, our goal was to win those two games and then re-evaluate things," explains the Meath skipper.

Now for the pivotal month, with four games on consecutive March weekends. "It's tough," he says. "You can either get yourselves into contention or get yourselves into relegation.

Competitive

"There's going to be a lot of things happening -- especially in Division Two, it's pretty competitive, so everyone is going to be beating everyone."

Beating the Lilywhites, however, is something that has proven beyond Meath thus far under Seamus McEnaney.

"They've had the run on us over the last few games, so of course we aim to try and put that right," says Kenny. "But it's not our big goal for the year either. We want to maintain our status in Division Two, and hopefully we'll get a few more wins and we could push on."

For Kenny, all three Kildare reversals last year were painful in different ways. The 'back door' defeat in Páirc Tailteann was arguably the worst, although he disputes the post-match consensus that his own blood-injury departure played into Kildare hands, with roaming half-back Emmet Bolton duly given the freedom to strike the crucial late scores, goal included.

"Look, in the heat of the battle, when lads come in and come off injured, it does disrupt things a bit. But that's definitely not the reason we were beaten," the Simonstown Gaels man stresses. "Looking back on the games, they've obviously been very competitive," he expands. "If you were to take aside the last ten minutes of each game, they were pretty much tit-for-tat the whole way through ... the disappointing thing was that Kildare, over the last four games, seem to be able to finish that bit stronger."

Earley, for his part, refuses to be downbeat as Kildare seek those extra two inches that might transform them from perennial 'nearly men' into champions.

"They always say that those two inches are the hardest to get," he muses, citing three specific areas in need of improvement: "Goals is one thing, not giving away possession is another, and getting the points when we have the opportunity is a third. If we can improve all that, then I think we won't be too far away."

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