Jack O’Connor surges forward for Meath during the O’Byrne Cup clash with Longford in January. Photo: Gerry Shanahan- www.cyberimages.net

Royals should be too strong for Longford challenge



In the preview to the Leinster SFC opener in 2018 the Meath Chronicle confidently predicted in the headline that 'Meath can advance to last four', but caveated it with a warning that 'Longford should not be taken lightly'.

Oh how right and wrong that prediction turned out to be!.

Longford stunned 14-man Meath, who had Shane McEntee harshly sent-off following a tangle with Rian Brady, by 0-16 to 0-14.

Despite the red card Meath had no excuses. They were simply awful that day. It was a harsh lesson and one the current crop of young Royals, hoping to propel the county back to the big time, should take heed of.

Meath don't have to look any further than the start of last year's Leinster campaign for their own horror story when they were dumped out at the first hurdle by Offaly, 0-10 to 1-11, in what manager Colm O'Rourke described as one of the worst performances by a Meath team ever.

Nothing can be taken for granted, especially by a Meath side that showed vulnerabilities during a hit and miss league campaign that saw them finish with just two wins (against Kildare and Louth) from their seven games.

Draws with Cavan and Fermanagh helped ensure safety in NFL Div 2 for another season, but the comprehensive losses to Donegal and Armagh and the late collapse against Cork proved that Meath are still a long way from being a polished article.

There are definitely signs of improvement. The opening half of the draw with Cavan and the closing 20 minutes of the win over Louth showed just how could Meath can be.

They are very robust and effective defensively and proved that when they moved the ball directly with pace and precision they can open up even the tightest of rearguards.

However there were also passages of naivety that showed up the lack of experience. Game management needs to improve. When the team finds themselves on the ropes as they invariably will at some stage next Sunday, they need to know how to absorb the blows without taking too much punishment.

Gaining that experience will come with time, but the white-hot heat of championship football is not a place to learn on their feet and Meath need to know when a game needs to be slowed down and when more urgency is required.

There is no denying there is an excitement about this crop of young players. They certainly appear to be heading in the right direction and with positive support from both management and fans they could be capable of restoring hurt Royal pride.

The early season injury list afforded Colm O'Rourke and his management team the opportunity to give more game time to extended panel members and many have grasped their chance with both hands.

Adam O'Neill looked comfortable and assured at full-back, Brian O'Halloran mixes tenacious defending with an attacking option from corner-back while Ciaran Caulfield and Sean Coffey continue to grow with each passing minute of experience.

Cian McBride was been effective on his return from Australian Rules, while Eoghan Frayne marked his first league campaign as a Meath regular by being the teams top scorer.

Add in the excellence of Donal Keogan, Mathew Costello and Ronan Jones and the potential return to the team of Ronan Ryan and Jordan Morris and it is easy to see why Meath supporters can be optimistic about the future.

Everyone knows that Dublin are the dominant force in Leinster and that will continue to be the case for the next few years, but Meath need to start making a claim for being the second best team in the province and a long way better than the best of the rest.

Longford have made decent strides in recent years. Their victory over Meath in 2018 was followed by a 19-point drubbing by Dublin.

In 2023 they suggested a new dawn was on the way when they won the O'Byrne Cup, but they followed that by winning just two more games in the entire year - one when they were relegated from Div 3 and one in the Tailteann Cup.

This year they retained the O'Byrne Cup (including beating Meath in Ashbourne) by seeing off an experimental Dublin side in the final, but they failed to make an impact in NFL Div 4, missing out on promotion by a couple of points with four wins from their seven games.

Wins over Waterford (0-16 to 0-13), London (3-12 to 1-10), promoted Leitrim (1-16 to 0-13) and Carlow (0-14 to 0-8) put them in with a shout of winning promotion on the final day of the league, but their heavy 2-9 to 2-18 loss to Wexford put paid to those aspirations.

That was a disappointing way for Longford to finish their league campaign and while they do carry a number of exceptionally talented individual players, including the dangerous Daniel Mimnagh, Mark Hughes, Michael Quinn and captain Patrick Fox they should find Meath's collective hunger and ability too hot to handle.