Championship will provide an opportunity for redemption
ANALYSIS Meath make the drop but valuable experience was gained
Their first campaign in NFL Div 1 for 16 years was certainly eventful, one that will not be forgotten for many years and for an abundance of different reasons, but one thing is for sure- Meath are a better side coming out of it than they were going into it.
On reflection six defeats and just one draw doesn't suggest many positives, but coming from a very low base Meath can look forward to the upcoming championship and life back in Div 2 as an opportunity to build confidence and get back to winning ways.
Since their one-point victory over Clare in the All-Ireland SFC qualifiers in 2019 Meath have lost nine and drawn once in 10 outings.
The three losses in the Super 8s were chastening experiences that left the side in a better place and while they undoubtedly did close the gap on the top teams during the league they still came up short.
A scoring difference of just minus 25 points proves how much Meath were in every game and apart from the 10-point drubbing by Donegal, in a performance that was completely against the grain of this side, Meath were within a score or two of all the big guns who will be considered genuine contenders for Sam Maguire by Christmas week.
A one point loss to Mayo, two-point defeat away to Kerry, a three-point come-from-behind victory for Galway in Navan, a brave four-point high-scoring defeat by the five-in-a-row All-Ireland champions in their own back yard and a draw with one of the top sides in Ulster last Sunday all indicate that Meath are there or thereabouts, but Meath manager Andy McEntee wants his players to be more clinical.
“Of course, there were a number of games in this league we could have won, but we didn't lose today either so all the time we are getting that little bit closer and if we can be that little bit more clinical at the top end of the field we could have been out of sight,” said the Meath manager.
“We have to just keep working hard, there is no secret to it.
“The one real positive from this campaign is that we have shown tremendous spirit in pretty much every game, but we still have to be a little bit more clinical with our finishing touches and that will allow us to win games like that against Monaghan today.
“It was important for us to get something out of this league and even though it was only one point from today's game it proves that we were willing to fight for it.
“That point for Monaghan keeps them up and fair play to them, I've utmost regard for them and the way they have performed over the last number of years, so for us to come up here and get something out of the game is important to us.”
Just as was the case against Kerry in Killarney and last week against Dublin in Killarney Meath were left to rue a poor start, but McEntee opted to focus on the positives of an excellent 50 minute performance that earned Meath a point their display at least deserved.
“It was a bit of deja-vu all over again, but that is the truth, we outplayed Monaghan against the breeze in the second-half for large periods of the game,” said McEntee.
“Frustrating start, the game could have been out of sight before we got a foothold in it, but then we had a super three quarters of the game and we showed we have loads to offer at this level.
“Again in the second-half when we had them on the rack, we were two points up and we missed an absolute open goal that would have put us five points up, I'm not too sure they would have come back from that.
“On the upside, we were three points down deep into injury-time and rattled off three points to earn the draw, so there is no shortage of resolve in these lads.”
Two of the stars of the show in Clones were Nobber forward Jordan Morris and Dunboyne's Ronan Jones. McEntee believes several players have benefited from the prolonged break caused by Covid and the manager is now of the opinion that he has a panel of players that offer him a multitude of options off the bench.
“Players have come back and done really well. Jordan (Morris) came in today and did well, he kicked what looked like a pretty decent score there right at the end. Everyone knew he was under pressure and he knew the situation himself, but he still landed it brilliantly so that was great to see,” enthused the manager.
“By and large we managed our own kickouts well and we managed their kickouts pretty well and contested a good few of them. Apart from the first 15 minutes we were on top in a lot of areas of the field, but we have to transfer that into scores.
“The strength-in-depth in the squad is something that we probably didn't have for a number of years. Today we picked up an injury and we had a couple of lads in foul trouble, but we were able to bring on players that certainly didn't seem to weaken the team.
“Last weekend we finished the game strong, this weekend we finished strong again so the lads have done their work, I have absolutely no complaints about that whatsoever.
“They have put in a fair shift and they have looked after themselves pretty well, by and large everyone is in pretty good nick.”
Everyone across the country has put in huge sacrifices to ensure there is a GAA season this winter and McEntee believes the players have sacrificed more than most, but that they wouldn't do it unless they love it.
“The lads wouldn't do it unless they were enjoying it, but at the same time there is an awful lot of extra stuff that needs to be done,” he said.
“The real enjoyment that's missing is going back and enjoying mixing with their friends and with their families, that's the hardest for them.
“At the moment it is work, play games, work, train, work. They are missing the social aspect of the game, I don't mean going out drinking pints, I mean mixing with people that are important to them.”
So now the focus changes to the championship. Off the back on nine losses and one draw in his last 10 games McEntee knows he cannot afford a slip-up against either Wexford or Wicklow.
While accepting his side are obviously improving and closing the gap on the big guns he is also very well aware that anything less than their best will not be good enough when the Leinster SFC finally gets underway on Sunday 8th November. So what happens between now and then to ensure Meath get back to winning ways.
“We work hard, that's all there is to it. There's no secret to it at all, we will work hard for the next two weeks and prepare for the championship as best we can,” said McEntee.
“Physically the lads are in great shape and when we get into the game we have proved we are a match for anybody, but unless we are at it 100 per cent we could be in trouble against anybody.
“At this level if you turn up and are a little bit off in a few areas then you are going to get punished.” Words of warning from the Meath manager.