Royal starts revival in clubs
Meath boss O'Dowd admits they need to be back in Division 1 but target is Leinster Final
ONCE upon a time, in the Boylan years of plenty, Meath were routinely included among the shortlist of genuine All-Ireland contenders. Each and every May, you drew up your 'potentials' and pondered where to put them. Even meandering leagues were treated with suspicion … was this another Royal ruse to hoodwink a nation?
Over the past decade and more, one accusation you cannot level at Meath's door is formbook skulduggery. Frequently, what's you seen in the league is what you've got in the championship.
They haven't been National League champions since 1994; their last top-flight final came six years later. Their last All-Ireland triumph was in '99 and their last final appearance in '01, on the back of another Leinster title, the eighth on Seán Boylan's watch.
It took another nine years before Meath reached their next provincial final, and that tarnished 2010 victory will be shrouded forever in caveats over Joe Sheridan's match-winning 'try'.
True, they enjoyed the occasional scenic route odyssey - in '07 and '09 - but these were fleeting outbreaks of optimism, soon to be buried in a morass of indifferent form, managerial oustings and county board ructions.
Meath appeared to be going nowhere fast … so where are they now?
Good question. The positives are that they've reached three consecutive Leinster finals, having appeared in just one over the previous decade. Their spring form has stabilised, to such an extent that flirting with relegation to Division Three (in 2011) or going the whole way down (in '12) has been followed by instant promotion ('13) and back-to-back third place finishes in the second tier.
For all that, there has been no cup to sup from and last year's Leinster final implosion against the Dubs left Royals of a restless persuasion wondering where the team was heading, two years into Mick O'Dowd's tenure.
Now, as O'Dowd gears up for this third championship, he sounds upbeat and cautious in the same breath. One word peppers his conversation - "stability", something marked absent in the years of upheaval that followed Boylan's eventual departure.
"I mean, Meath went ten years (and were) maybe in one Leinster final. And struggled in the league - picked up three points and four points," says O'Dowd, in reference to their 2011 and '12 campaigns.
"In the last three league campaigns we've been beaten twice - that's all - in each of them.
"We've got to the last two Leinster finals, and it's a target to get to another one this year.
"So, that's a kind of stability," he surmises. "The standards inside the Meath dressing-room are very high now - and the character there and the leadership group inside in the Meath dressing-room is good.
"There's good work going on at county board level in terms of bringing through the next generation of footballers, and I think the clubs realise that they need to raise their standards as well.
"So in terms of long-term success, that's what's going to have to drive it - the clubs and the underage squads."
But, just how long must the fans wait? He accepts the performance against Dublin last year was poor but, when you delve into the "nitty-gritty", Meath were missing key men all summer (Conor Gillespie and Eamon Wallace), others were "not really ready for that day" and Dublin were "very good".
During the league just gone, Gillespie, Wallace, Kevin Reilly and Shane O'Rourke have returned from long-term injuries while a clutch of others have made first league starts.
"I've spoken a lot since I took over about becoming a top-eight team," O'Dowd explains.
"Okay, we didn't get promoted in the league this year; we'd like to get to a quarter-final of the championship. But we're making incremental improvement, I would say, every year."
To sustain longer-term championship progress, he accepts, Meath need to be playing Division One football.
"The average age of the Meath team is 23 at the moment and this group - the Donal Keogans and the Bryan Mentons and the Paddy O'Rourkes, Andrew Tormey, that age profile - they will play in Division One. There's no doubt about that," he predicts.
If all this sounds like a manager in his final year already making noises about an extension, the man himself clarifies: "I've spoken before about that - probably when I took over - it was a five-year project. But look it, all I'm involved is for three years, and at the end of the summer we'll see what happens beyond that. But that's what you need.
"People who know football in Meath know what's happening. Maybe people who come in and out, and watch this game and watch that game, not really involved, they might be looking for more success more quickly."
Asked if the gap between Dublin and the rest of Leinster is bridgeable in the short term, he concludes that Meath's arch rivals are "reaping what they've sown", not just at elite development squad level but also in the clubs.
"The clubs need to really raise their standards across all counties, because that's where the best players will come from," he says.
Have Meath clubs embraced this pursuit of excellence? "Bit by bit, clubs are beginning to see that … that they need to up it," he replies.
Meath don't open their Leinster campaign for another month - a June 14 quarter-final against Wicklow that many will view as a 'home banker'.
Yet O'Dowd warns: "It's the first time there's a home match in Navan in 20 years in the Leinster championship. So, it's a big date for us. Anyone that has experience of championship football, you have to have yourself 100pc ready for the first round, regardless."