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Friday 24 November 2017

Blue benchmark can wait as Royals crave lift-off ...

Meath's entire season is 'on the line' against Louth or Wicklow - McEntee

Meath boss Andy McEntee has his focus on his immediate possible opponents. Photo: SPORTSFILE
Meath boss Andy McEntee has his focus on his immediate possible opponents. Photo: SPORTSFILE

Andy McEntee finds himself in that classic bind of every Meath manager of the past decade: facing questions about the Dubs while acutely aware that he cannot afford, even for a second, to look that far ahead.

Not when there's a Leinster SFC quarter-final to be won, with no guarantees of a foregone conclusion there ... and even then a semi-final, potentially against Kildare, that screams 50-50.

So the prospect of a provincial final date with Dublin - however tantalising or terrifying - can wait.

McEntee may be a year-one boss but he's been around the block often enough to know that June 4 is the be-all and end-all for Meath ... until they get to June 5.

"Ah look it," he says, "Louth in Parnell Park or Wicklow down in Aughrim - neither of which is going to be a particularly welcoming place to go to.

"Truth of the matter is, we have a battle on our hands. You win that game and you progress ... but if you lose that game, your season is on the line. So that's a huge game for us."

Following their latest close-but-no-cigar quest for top-flight promotion, Meath will share Division 2 status with their elevated Louth neighbours next spring. It was McEntee's first league campaign and it started in ominous enough fashion - two defeats in three, including a day-one ten-point trimming at home to Kildare.

He was far more encouraged by how they finished the league - seven points from their last four games - but they now face the tricky balancing act of maintaining that momentum in a competitive match vacuum.

As for their supposedly easier, Dub-free gateway to a Leinster final, McEntee views that as "nonsense talk really".

He added: "You've got to win your first game; and then, if you get through that, you have the likes of Laois or Kildare waiting for you. So there's nothing easy.

"Every game is hugely important. Now, I suppose the fact that there's a back door, people will say, 'It's not as cut-throat' … but it is as cut-throat as that. Our season is pretty much on the line in that first game."

For all that, the man who led Ballyboden St Enda's to the All-Ireland club summit 14 months ago doesn't shy away from questions about what Dublin represent to Meath.

"Dublin are going for their seventh Leinster championship in a row. You've got to benchmark yourself against Dublin … who else are you going to benchmark against?" he asks.

"Historically, people in Meath have liked to consider themselves rivals of Dublin. But also, realistically, that hasn't been the case for some time now."

The Nobber native isn't sure if it's good or bad for the rest of Leinster that Jim Gavin's men have been pushed to the brink by a litany of rivals since last August (Kerry and Mayo twice, Tyrone, Donegal and Monaghan) before Kerry finally ended their record unbeaten run in the Division 1 final.

"You can look at the Kerry game and say, 'Okay, they're fallible'. But then you're after annoying them and they could come back and work a little bit harder and they'd be even better again," he cautions.

"Truth of the matter is, you still have to beat them. You still have to play really, really well; play to the top of their game; get a little bit of luck."

Nine months on from his appointment, McEntee declares himself "really happy" with a group of players who are "doing everything that's asked of them, and a little bit more."

They have improved their physical conditioning - but what of their psychological baggage?

"It's no secret, Meath have ended up losing a lot of games in the last couple of years where they were in a commanding position early on - and that's bound to have an impact on fellas at some stage," their manager accepts. "But I think the message that we're trying to get across is that, if you work hard enough, the likes of that thing won't happen.

"We got a couple of games throughout the league where the game was in the balance with not long to go, and we've come out the right side of it.

Connection

"The only way I think you get over that is by getting results like that, and working hard, and seeing the connection between your workrate and the results. I'd like to think that penny might have dropped.

"We were a couple of points down to Galway with ten minutes to go and we came out on top there.

"We were nine points down to Cork … now, ultimately, I was a bit disappointed because, when we got back to within touching distance, we took our foot off their throats. And we were lucky to get something out of it.

"But we did get something out of it.

"I suppose that, in itself, should build a little bit of confidence," he concludes.

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