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Saturday 7 December 2019

Dubs could be vulnerable at back but will kick in second half

Meath’s James Conlon, who is emerging as one of the stars in Andy McEntee’s team, in action against Laois during the Leinster SFC semi-final
Meath’s James Conlon, who is emerging as one of the stars in Andy McEntee’s team, in action against Laois during the Leinster SFC semi-final

There was a time in the not too distant past when the build-up to a Dublin versus Meath Leinster SFC final would fill you with a combination of excitement and apprehension.

It hasn't been such in the most recent years as Dublin have dominated the landscape in Leinster.

Some pertinent statistics tell the tale of the tape in how the rival counties currently measure up to each other - Dublin have won nine of their last ten SFC games against Meath, 2010 being the odd one out; Dublin are seeking their 27th successive win in the Leinster Championship, with their last defeat against Meath in the 2010 Leinster semi-final.

However, Meath have certainly shown signs of improvement this season in manager Andy McEntee's third season in charge.

Earlier in the season they guaranteed NFL Division 1 football next season and reaching the provincial final gives them something now of a 'free shot' at the Dubs in Croke Park this Sunday afternoon.

From this successful tenure with Ballyboden St Enda's which culminated in managing them to Dublin, Leinster and All-Ireland titles the Royal boss will feel he knows the current Dublin crop in detail.

Book of magic tricks

His message in-house will be one of confidence that Dublin are not an unstoppable machine and perhaps he'll delve into the Seán Boylan book of magic tricks to stir his men for this weekend's challenge.

McEntee will have seen a succession of counties going to Croker for provincial semi-finals and deciders over the past decade and returning with the tails between the legs so he could try some curveball.

He'll have his side well wired-up. They possess a lot of pace in attack and their interplay is more developed than it was last year.

Physically, there are another year in development and as a result there shot-options and timing in attack has stepped up a notch.

The Royals will be summoning all of their passion and pride and will tap into how they used deal with the Dubs during their halcyon days.

Do have they the strength in depth, footballing nous, skills and physical attributes to 'do a number' on Dublin over the 70-plus minutes? I don't think so at this moment in time.

Will they come out all guns blazing and try to rock Dublin back and sow some doubt in their minds? I am more inclined to think they will try stop Dublin building momentum, like the start Jim Gavin's men made against Kildare to open up a decisive early lead.

Meath have some fine footballers but Bryan Menton and Donal Keoghan are their two key players. If they find themselves on the back foot Meath could struggle to build forward momentum like what they derived from both players in their semi-final victory over Laois.

They look to have a real jewel in James Conlon, who is only a couple of years out of the minor grade, but it is a big ask for him to deliver a huge game on such a big day. He could probably do without supporters likening him to Bernard Flynn as such comparisons rarely do a young, developing footballer any favours.

The St Colmcille's man, who is currently Meath's second top scorer from play (with 0-9 despite only coming on as a sub against Carlow, behind Menton on 2-4), gave Laois' Stephen Attride a torrid team last time out when scoring five points from play but that means that Dublin will have their homework done on his elusive movement and how he plays off of full-forward Mickey Newman.

Meath will look to attack Dublin's full-back line so the roles of Newman and Conlon will be central to their game-plan.

Dublin's defensive set-up in their two Championship games to date has been interesting. On both occasions Cian O'Sullivan was given the full-back role and he didn't look to be particularly comfortable there.

Sweeper

He is more suited to the sweeper role yet it was mostly Brian Howard and at times Niall Scully who found themselves dropping back to try cut out the early direct ball inside.

In the absence of Jonny Coooper and Eoin Murchan, who did return to action as a sub against Kildare, Dublin's defensive options look more limited and Meath. Jack McCaffrey does not seem fully up to the searing counter-attacking pace he can offer, so Meath will feel there will be gains for them in this sector.

They'll need to get in front as Dublin have shown improvement in the second half of both their games to date, scoring 4-9 in the second half against Louth and 0-15 against Kildare. Indeed if you look at Dublin's last ten SFC games the only half of football they have been outscored in was by Tyrone in last September's All-Ireland final.

For Dublin they are attempting to make history on Sunday and become the first football team in any province to win nine provincial titles in-a-row.

People question are Dublin players still motivated by winning Leinster titles? I think they are but primarily because it provides them with the shortest route to where they want to reach while it also helps in terms of planning your training schedule and emphasis as they plot their summer journey.

There was a time when Leinster finals were great, great sporting occasions but that has been on the wane because of Dublin's preeminence and authority.

I made my own senior championship debut as a callow wing-forward in the Leinster decider of 1996, in a line including two future Dublin senior managers, Pat Gilroy and Jim Gavin. I clipped two points but also got clipped by John McDermott in a 'welcome to big boys football' fashion!

Dublin and Meath matches used by the makings of players and teams. The winner, more often a potent championship force thereafter during the 1980s and 90s.

The rivalry is different now and I can't see anything other than a Dublin win on Sunday but with Meath making life more difficult that some think and thus emerging with plenty of optimism about advancing to the Super 8s.

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