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Royals must maintain consistency as Division 1 becomes a tantalising prospect

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Andy McEntee

Andy McEntee

SPORTSFILE

Andy McEntee

"While it's disappointing to be going back down," observed then Meath manager Eamonn Barry, "it's not the end of the world. "Meath have been in Division Two before and came back up."

That was April 10th, 2004.

Meath had just beaten Derry by 0-10 to 0-8 in Navan in their last match of Division 1B, leaving them on six points along with Kildare and Armagh.

Their defeat to Galway in Salthill in which they conceded four goals a week previously left Meath with a inferior scoring difference to the other two however and were thus relegated.

Fourteen years later, that's the last match Meath played in football's topflight, diluted with the split into 1A and 1B though it was at the time.

And as the county team has slipped from All-Ireland relevance over the past decade and a half, so too has the League increased exponentially in importance.

For a county with as rabid a football following as Meath, grazing on the lower slopes of spring football has been a stern test of their collective interest.

"The priority of the League has changed massive in the last few years," says Cian Ward, who played for Meath in that last match in Division 1, all of 14 years ago.

Prepared

"The League was really only about getting prepared for Championship for most of the time I was involved.

"It's only really in the last few years that the League has taken on so much importance.

"But definitely, it's hugely important for Meath to get there but it's just been so long.

"It's probably a very important step. Definitely something that management and players have been targeting over the last few years, to get back up and competing and playing regularly against the top teams."

There have been near-misses.

On three occasions in the last five seasons, they have finished in third place in the second tier but a lack of consistency, a failing Andy McEntee has readily c ited, has been their undoing.

This year, they have charted a straight line on the performance graph.

In a group as tight in quality as this one, their three victories were all impressive for different reasons.

Meath's only loss in Ballybofey came about due to a late goalkeeping error, leading McEntee to observe after their most recent victory in Cork last Saturday: "There is something happening here.

"There's four good performances in a row," he noted.

"That's what we're looking for.

"We need to know what we're getting from this team when they take the field and I think so far, we know what we're getting from them."

A victory over Kildare in Navan on Sunday would represent a significant move towards promotion.

Given the paucity of things to celebrate in Meath football of late, such a progression would serve the dual purpose of bringing the disaffected back to Navan and allowing McEntee to gauge his still developing team against the game's modern powers.

"It's a long time since Meath have had a big game against a top team in the League," as Ward points out.

Football mad

"They're all one-off matches rather than a consistent run.

"There's a football-mad following in Meath. A lot of people are craving to get behind a successful team.

"You'd see in that in attendances if they went up to Division 1.

"You'll probably see that on Sunday in Navan for the Kildare game. Because supporters are just looking for something to get behind."

The bigger question then is whether Meath can compete in the rarefied air of Division 1 should they see this promise through over the coming weeks.

Nothing they have done in the Championship after their previous botched promotion attempts suggested they would have done anything better than thread water, although they took All-Ireland finalists Tyrone to extra-time in Navan last year and were brutally unlucky to lose by a point.

"You can never really tell," Ward stresses.

"That's the unknown.

"You can only look at the progress the likes of Monaghan and Roscommon have had in their Championship form on the back of being in Division 1.

"For Meath to win a Leinster, they only need to put in one massive performance against Dublin or Kildare really.

"And playing in Division 1 would be a massive help in being able to do that," Ward adds.

"I don't think you can prepare properly for that sort of game unless you're playing against teams of a higher level on a consistent basis."

"That's why it's so important."


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