Monday 18 December 2017

Royals ready to rumble

Rivalry 'close to heart'' says Meath manager

MEATH can't win the Leinster title without beating Dublin on Sunday.

Similarly, they can't beat Dublin on Sunday without winning the Leinster title.

So Mick O'Dowd doesn't have to choose which would rank as the more significant achievement.

"I think there is no doubt about it, winning, the nature of who you are playing, the All-Ireland champions, the double League champions, the Leinster champions," he says, summing up the totality of the symbolic and material effects a Meath win would have.

"I mean, a Leinster title would be great and beating Dublin would be great.

"It would show massive progress by the squad. I still maintain in the long term, you have to become a top eight team. That's the big picture, the long term stuff.

"And you have to playing against the top teams regularly to develop individually and collectively."


Yet a victory this Sunday would clearly accelerate that process.

For O'Dowd, his tenure thus far has incorporated a delicate balancing act of attempting to bring Meath into football's new age while also trying to restore its traditional principles.

"I'm very proud of Meath and I just thought we'd slipped completely off the radar," he explained before. "The fundamentals of Meath football had been lost."

Which isn't to say that O'Dowd is a slave to anyone's perception of how the game should be played.

It was, during Seamus McEnaney's eventful if ultimately unsatisfactory reign, a feature of Meath's games in Navan that the succession of any more than three hand-passes from the home side brought agitated and vocal demands from patrons, imploring the man in possession to 'let it in.'

O'Dowd, as many have said before, has built a team both for Croke Park and, more importantly, for 2014.

There have been times, like the win over Kildare in the Leinster semi-final, where they have been direct and quick.

There are others, necessitated by being in a League group with the likes of Monaghan, Donegal and Armagh, where they've been forced to be more patient and thoughtful about their mode of transport.


"I think a word I've used a lot since I took over is 'adaptability,' O'Dowd outlines. "There are such different styles out there and we spent the league dealing with a lot of teams who had a lot of men dropping back.

"Dublin don't do it as much, some of those teams in the league and some of the top teams in the country so there you go - if you're to compete to get into the top eight you have to be adaptable.

"We've brought in a lot of new players into the squad in the last 18 months and they've been building their experience through playing different opposition at the highest level.

"Through it all there's an honesty to the way we're playing, really, and we're trying to improve our fitness, improve our work-rate to try and match the top teams."

And what could more traditionally Meath, certainly in the recent definition, than knocking Dublin from their throne?

Last year might have been a step too far for a team still in the embryonic stages of O'Dowd's regime.

"In the opening half of that game we had a lot of chances that we didn't take," he recalls of his team's seven points defeat in the Leinster final.

"We were two up at half time. They had chances too, all be it, but we felt we could have been more up at half time, so what's the learning there. When you get your chances you need to be more clinical.

"I think the depth of our squad has improved. But they definitely had a bigger impact off the bench."

He points out a change to both the Meath team and Dublin in the last 12 months but perhaps of equal significance is the mood in the Royal county after a few bleak years.


"I'd say there's a buzz around the county, again. And I'm sure expectations have risen as our performances have risen. We'd four Leinster championship matches last year, our last two were against Division One teams, and they were reasonable performances.

"The Dublin game was gone away from us coming into the home stretch.

"So I suppose Meath people coming into this year were enthused by the team. I'd say we had a solid league.

"And I'd say people were nervous coming into the Kildare game, because of our injury crisis. But then happy after.

"Now, it comes to Meath/Dublin. And Meath people always love that game. It's close to the heart," O'Dowd acknowledges.

"I can't say exactly how much people's expectation has risen...," he adds before trailing off knowing that rightly or wrongly, Meath tradition means no one being particularly shocked were his team to re-enact one of the county's more compelling feats against their closest of enemies.

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