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Leinster crisis: Who can carry fight to Dubs?

Meath for the drop - and it may end in tiers for Kildare

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Former Meath footballer, Graham Geraghty, at this week’s Allianz Leagues media day

Former Meath footballer, Graham Geraghty, at this week’s Allianz Leagues media day

SPORTSFILE

Meath manager Andy McEntee is ordered to leave the Páirc Tailteann pitch by referee Seán Hurson during his team’s FL Division defeat to Mayo in Navan earlier this month

Meath manager Andy McEntee is ordered to leave the Páirc Tailteann pitch by referee Seán Hurson during his team’s FL Division defeat to Mayo in Navan earlier this month

SPORTSFILE

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Former Meath footballer, Graham Geraghty, at this week’s Allianz Leagues media day

Sometimes, no matter how distant the memory to when the Leinster football championship mattered, you need to remind yourself how long it has been.

The last time Dublin fell in Leinster was exactly nine years and eight months ago.

You might even surmise that they suffered enough provincial trauma on June 27, 2010 - leaking five goals to a rampant Meath in that surreal semi-final - to last an entire decade.

They have won their subsequent 27 Leinster fixtures by a cumulative 381 points - over 14 points per game, on average.

The last time Dublin almost didn't win a provincial outing was the 2011 semi-final when, with the sides level in injury-time, Kildare defender Andriú Mac Lochlainn was controversially penalised for a foul on Bernard Brogan as the pair tussled for possession. Brogan picked himself up to kick the winning free: 1-12 to 1-11.

How Kildare - or any of their fellow provincial pretenders - must yearn for such a hard luck case. Even moral victories over the Dubs are now beyond reach.

As matters stand, however, both Meath and Kildare have more pressing concerns than wondering what decade will deliver a next win against Dublin.

After four rounds of the Allianz Football League, Meath are pointless and seemingly destined to make an instant return to their erstwhile home-from-home, Division 2.

Their top-flight displays haven't been without flickers of promise - they snatched defeat from the jaws of victory over Mayo, and ran Kerry to three points last Sunday even after a disastrous start in Killarney.

Juggernaut

But their survival prospects already appear doomed, with three matches left against the top three teams in the division - Galway at home this Sunday, the Dublin juggernaut in Croke Park and Monaghan away.

"There's no point sugar coating it," says Meath icon Graham Geraghty. "We're struggling in Division 1, being competitive but not being able to get across the line, which is worrying.

"Looking at the early part, you'd have targeted Tyrone up there and the Mayo game was disappointing - a game we had in the bag we let slip.

"So that's two or three points we could have had ... and three points might keep you up. And I can't see them beating either Dublin, Galway or Monaghan in the last three games."

In fairness, the widely held pre-league presumption was that Meath might struggle for oxygen at this rarefied level.

By contrast, Kildare were many people's hot tip for one of the promotion berths from Division 2, having just appointed a three-time All-Ireland winning manager in Jack O'Connor.

All of which makes their current plight - just two points from a possible eight, on the same mark as Clare and Fermanagh - all the more unpalatable.

The real kicker, though, is the potential consequences of relegation. In that scenario, unless Kildare reach a Leinster final, they would be shoehorned into the new Tier 2 championship.

An optimist would look at their remaining fixtures - Laois away, Cavan and Westmeath at home - and spy points for the taking. But winning high-pressure matches in reality, instead of on paper, has always been Kildare's biggest problem.

Their opening-day victory over Fermanagh has been followed by a hat-trick of defeats. Losing narrowly away to Clare, their rivals for the drop, was arguably the most damaging.

Dispiriting

The performance in losing by six in Armagh was the most dispiriting. "That could have been far worse," reckons Andriú Mac Lochlainn, citing four goal chances that Armagh "really should have taken".

Last Sunday's four-point defeat to Roscommon, on home turf, was indicative of a team that responds poorly to setbacks, in this case two goals in the last quarter.

Mac Lochlainn has some sympathy for O'Connor, trying to put his own stamp on the team while figuring out who he can rely on.

"He has to find out what players are what in reality," he says. "And you can't find that out in training. I trained with guys who were superstars and on the big day they'd let you down. And other guys then who will just potter along in training but will always produce."

The retired Lily summaries the big issues facing O'Connor as a combination of personnel, finding consistency and "mental robustness".

"Unfortunately for Kildare, our away record is abysmal the last number of years," he laments.

"And our form of winning games that need to be won … that's what sets teams apart, the teams that can go out when the pressure is on."

He cites their 2016 NFL campaign: Kildare beat Clare in the league but then lost to them in the Division 3 final.

A year later, already promoted, they played "our so-called second team against Galway; in the league final we played our so-called first team and we lost by a similar amount. They were must-win games - national league titles on the line."

This Saturday in Portlaoise is, beyond question, another "must-win" match. Facing local derby rivals who have enjoyed "positive vibes" under their own new boss imported from Kerry (Mike Quirke) ups the ante further. "This is going to be a very difficult day for Kildare," Mac Lochlainn warns.

The same can be said for Meath on Sunday, hosting a Galway team that has lit up Division 1 under their new hotseat incumbent, Pádraic Joyce.

Affected

But the bigger question, looking ahead to summer, is this: how will Dublin's putative chief rivals in Leinster be affected if they are both relegated?

"It's very tough on the younger players going in now, compared to last year where you were competitive," says Geraghty of Meath's conundrum.

"I know you were beaten in the Leinter final but you were in the Super 8s, you got a good run ... and if you are going out and being beaten every Sunday, it is demoralising.

"It doesn't matter if you're 'bet' by one point or 20 points - you don't get any points. You look at the board and you're on the bottom. That's all supporters see. Players are maybe a little bit different but you're still there.

"You see teams coming up (into Division 1) and unless you have a panel of 30 players that are all good enough to be on the 15, it's very hard to compete at that level."

Geraghty, a Rolls Royce footballer who excelled in multiple lines, reckons the current crop are "very good" in defence, holding their own in midfield but lacking that elusive marquee forward.

Kildare, you might argue, already have one in Daniel Flynn, back after a year's break. But while Flynn struck a vital goal against Fermanagh and 0-3 against Roscommon, Mac Lochlainn maintains that he needs to "step up" even more.

"Johnny Doyle wasn't as big or as strong as Daniel. He got double-marked. He found a way. Good players always do," he declares. "Shane Walsh (of Galway) gets man-marked; he finds a way. Daniel needs to acclimatise himself that he's no longer under the radar."

Blessing

Strangely, though, one part of Mac Lochlainn believes it could be a blessing in disguise if Kildare tumble into Tier 2.

"Ideally, you'd like that it doesn't come to that," he says, while wondering aloud if it "might help to catapult you".

"I wouldn't be depressed if we could make hay in the 'B' Championship and guys got a huge amount of experience and game-time and you're pushing on and actually competing to win a title.

"Obviously," he quickly clarifies, "with the aim of coming straight back up!"