Meath selectors at a training session in Dunganny included Finian Murtagh (left), Andy McEntee (manager), Paul Nestor, Donal Curtis and Colm Nally. Photo: John Quirke / www.quirke.ie

Plenty to play for starting against Westmeath

Finally after so much uncertainty, so much inactivity, another inter-county GAA season is underway.

For so many GAA enthusiasts the new season is as welcome as the swallows, the arrival of the swift-moving birds around these parts a sure sign that summer - hopefully a glorious, sunsplashed summer - is here at last.

But will this be a glorious summer for Meath senior footballers?

Or will it, as recent years have suggested, be another few months when initial hopes and aspirations are dashed on the rocks of harsh reality.

The harsh reality is that Meath is a middle-of-the-table football county with no realistic chance of winning an All-Ireland SFC title - and won't have any time soon.

A county that was once the elite of Gaelic football, but now exiled from the golden circle of the game that now includes only a very chosen few - the Dublins, the Kerrys of this world. Perhaps one or two others.

Normally, of course, at this time of the year, thoughts would be very firmly fixed on the start of the championship. Now management teams and players must focus on getting their truncated NFL campaigns completed first.

The Meath hurlers started their NHL Div 2A journey against Offaly last weekend while on Sunday next the footballers will kick-start their campaign when they host Westmeath in Navan, 3.45pm.

Of course there will be no spectators to witness how that game pans out, but the new league format ensures that teams - at least those with any real ambitions of making an impact - need to secure victory first time around. That reality was recently recognised by manager Andy McEntee.

He reflected on how there "was definitely pressure on this year" and how he was concerned the team was going into the league "cold."

He also added that there should be some consideration taken of a team's lack of preparations when it came to "consequences" for not having a good league campaign.

Meath supporters will be hoping their team is not caught cold and that the team won't have to pay any of those "consequences."

They will want to see a vibrant league campaign to set themselves up for a rousing run in the championship. Signs of real progress.

The NFL format this year sees the various divisions split into north and south.

Meath find themselves in Div 2 North along with Westmeath, Mayo and Down.

The top two teams in each divisional group progress to the semi-finals.

The bottom two will play relegation semi-finals with the losers relegated. The teams in Div 2 South are Cork, Kildare, Clare and Laois.

Meath - who were relegated from Div 1 at the end of last year with a record of just one draw from seven games played - would, despite that dispiriting statistic, be expected to defeat Westmeath.

The Lake County side only moved up to Div 2 when they won promotion at the end of the 2019 campaign and finished in mid-table last year.

Down could pose a bigger threat, but they have had their difficulties too in recent years and only clinched promotion, along with Cork, from Div 3 last year.

With their Div 1 experience to draw on Meath should do enough to claim victory in that tie also.

Mayo, of course, have suffered from a raft of retirements - and they are sure to be vulnerable as they rebuild.

Chris Barrett, Keith Higgins, Seamie O'Shea, Donal Vaughan, Tom Parsons and David Clarke have all left.

How many counties could afford to lose such talent without paying a heavy price in the short-term at least?

A victory or three in the league would certainly help to dispel some of the gloom that has hung over Meath football ever since that bleak evening last November. Remember?

Meath went up to Croke Park to take on Dublin in the Leinster SFC final.

They went up to headquarters carrying the aspirations of supporters with them - and there was real hope that this time around Meath could push Dublin hard, really hard.

This correspondent recalls talking to a former All-Ireland winning player with Meath the day before the game.

There were one or two aspects of the Meath side that concerned him, but he felt overall they could trouble the Dubs big time - and he wasn't alone.

There were others who felt that, with the proverbial bounce of the ball, Meath could hope for more than just a decent performance; more than just the thin gruel of a moral victory.

Some of the more optimistic, dyed-in-the-wool Meath followers even felt that victory was a real possibility.

A major source of such optimism was Meath's rousing victory over Kildare in the Leinster SFC semi-final, particularly in the second-half when they fired three goals to the net and ended up winning 5-9 to 0-15.

What attacking verve they showed in parts of that game.

What confidence, panache and youthful exuberance they demonstrated all over the pitch.

Had Meath turned a corner, we wondered?

What was witnessed in the Leinster final was thoroughly dispiriting.

The players looked completely lost for most of the evening and lacking in confidence as they sought in vain to grapple with Dublin's power.

The manner of the 21-point defeat (0-9 to 3-21) extinguished hopes that a sustained and real revival in fortunes was underway.

It was a bleak day indeed in the annals of Meath football, a painful reminder of how far the Royals have to travel to match Dublin - but then every other team in the All-Ireland series has to make its own particular journey to try and get up to the lofty heights where the reigning All-Ireland champions reside.

Some are light years away.

Meath's relegation from the top flight of the NFL Div 1 after one campaign and the heavy championship defeat to Dublin, suggests they too are a long way off the pace.

And yet, there certainly are grounds for real optimism going into whatever 2021 might throw at the Royal County.

Against Kildare in that Leinster SFC semi-final Mathew Costello from the Dunshaughlin club, Jordan Morris (Nobber) and Jason Scully (Oldcastle) were among the goalscorers.

Those three players are part of a new wave of talented young footballers who have graduated to senior inter-county football in recent times.

The accomplished Cathal Hickey from the Seneschalstown club is another player with huge potential.

The hope is that these players will be able to push on and fulfil their potential.

In this year's Leinster SFC Meath play the winner of Longford and Carlow.

If Longford win, as they are likely to, then the game against them would be an assignment that carries considerable threat for McEntee and his troops.

He, and long-suffering Meath supporters, will remember all too well how Longford defeated a startled Meath team, 0-16 to 0-14, in the 2018 Leinster SFC at Pearse Park.

That defeat was another reminder of how Meath have slipped down the ranks in recent times.

The indications are that the Royals have improved somewhat since then, with the raft of young players brought in over the past year or so, helping to re-energise the team.

However, the question remains - is it enough to make them serious contenders once more in 2021?

The new-look NFL campaign will tell a lot about where this Meath team is going.

The experience of a campaign in the NFL Div 1 - although it was a fragmented campaign due to Covid-19 - has to count in a positive way for the players.

There's a lot to play for as another Covid-dominated summer of inter-county action beckons starting against neighbours Westmeath.

The first action of 2021 will take place behind closed doors at what will be a ghostly Pairc Tailteann on Sunday at 3.45pm.

The other game in the four-team group will be played on Saturday when Mayo will host Down at Castlebar.

A winning start is the minimum requirement this weekend ahead of the trip to play Down the following week in Armagh followed by what should be the big game of that particular weekend - a trip to play Mayo in Castlebar on Sunday 30th May.

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