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Sunday 23 September 2018

Familiar hurdles facing Andy's Royals in 2018

McEntee must find consistency this spring to get Meath promoted to the top flight

Meath’s Ronan Jones has opted out of the Royal County panel this year to take up a college placement in Boston
Meath’s Ronan Jones has opted out of the Royal County panel this year to take up a college placement in Boston

In Navan on Sunday, after an O'Byrne Cup victory over Wicklow that brought new meaning to the word facile (4-19 to 0-13), Andy McEntee was invited to reflect upon 2017 and his first season as manager of Meath.

"It was disappointing," he admitted of a year that flirted with progress but ultimately produced no concrete, results-based evidence of same.

"I think everybody was disappointed but the truth is it wouldn't have taken an awful lot more for it to be a good year."

This is both true and a recurring theme for Meath this decade.

While occasionally needing to be checked for a pulse in the post-Boylan era, Meath have had plenty of almost-good years since their last and most infamous Leinster title in 2010.

They have lost out on promotion to Division 1 by a minute measure in three of the past four seasons, for instance.

Last year, they finished a point shy of second-placed Kildare.

In 2015, they were deprived a cherished top-flight spot in a head-to-head, having lost to Roscommon, despite having a better scoring record.

Scourge

They also finished third a year previous, two points shy of Donegal and Monaghan.And each of those campaigns featured matches that in truth, they should have won but didn't.

Spring inconsistency has been their scourge.

"Another point in the league would have had us in Division One," said McEntee on Sunday on that very theme.

"Another point against Donegal and we would have got into the next round of qualifiers.

"We didn't get to where we wanted to be ... but we are not a million miles away."

Since then, there has been some moving and shaking in McEntee's squad, most notably in his goalkeeping stable.

At 28, Paddy O'Rourke decided in November to opt out of the squad and his reasons for doing so are a mystery to the Meath footballing public.

O'Rourke has been part of the Meath senior setup for eight years. In 2013, his stock had risen to the point where he was Ireland's goalkeeper for the two International Rules Tests in Breffni Park and Croke Park under Paul Earley's management.

Last year wasn't O'Rourke's finest, however.

He was culpable for Ronan Holcroft's goal in Meath's Championship opener against Louth in Parnell, a score that presented a lifeline to the Wee County that they didnt't deserve.

In the league back in February, he was caught out by Down's Joe Murphy for a first half goal that set up a first victory for the county in 14 league and championship games, a run that was creeping towards two years and contributed to the latest of Meath's near misses in their seemingly never-ending fight for promotion to Division 1.

It was expected then, that O'Rourke's spot might come under threat for the first time since he took over the number one jersey but within three weeks of leaving the squad, his 2017 deputy, Joe Sheridan, followed.

The 33-year-old's suggestion that "lads are nearly detesting playing inter-county football," didn't exactly paint his second coming in a bright light.

But after three years away from it, Sheridan may not have anticipated the huge increase in commitment he experienced.

"It's coming to a point where you're saying, 'Do I really want to do it'?"

The answer, evidently, was no. Which meant McEntee turned to David Gallagher, his St Peter's Dunboyne club-mate.

Gallagher, who will be 38 this March, has not been involved with Meath since retiring in 2012. Mostly, for the past six years, he has played outfield for Dunboyne, although it is expected now that Gallagher will go up against Donaghmore/Ashboure 'keeper Andy Colgan for the job permanently.

And there have been other Royal County opt-outs.

Of at least a comparable loss to O'Rourke's are Ronan Jones and Ruairí Ó Coileáin, two of Meath's most promising footballers.

Jones, who made an immediate impression in midfield last year, has taken up a college placement in Boston for two years while Ó Coileáin has accepted an internship in New York with a legal firm.

Pádraig Harnan, meanwhile, will also be unavailable after deciding to embark on a stint abroad having been persuaded to come home last year but failing to make the anticipated impact.

For all that, McEntee will now be able to call on Harry Rooney, who played in every game in 2016 before opting out last year to travel to Australia.

Rooney will compensate for the loss of Jones by competing with Adam Flanagan and Bryan Menton for the midfield spots but it is up front - where Mickey Newman has stepped away - that Meath are most in need of an infusion of talent.

Donal Lenihan has scored 1-5 in Meath's two O'Byrne Cup matches to date and should feature against Longford in Sunday's semi-final.

Simonstown pair Seán Tobin and Pádraig McKeever and St Colmcille's Ben Brennan have also shown promise yet Meath's inconsistency is probably inevitable given the mammoth turnover of players of late.

In his four years in charge, Mick O'Dowd gave out 28 championship debuts.

And the well of underage talent hasn't been deep - Meath have been in just one Leinster under-21 final in the past 16 years (losing to Dublin in 2014).

This spring, not only will they play four of their seven league games away from home, their first two away games are against the teams relegated from Division 1 last year - Roscommon and Cavan.

Another near miss would be a hard swallow.

"I think we have enough players," said McEntee this time last year by way of assessing his raw materials.

"We just need to get them to a standard where they can consistently compete."

New year. Same challenge for Meath.

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