Kildare v Meath
Croke Park, Dublin, Sunday 2pm, Ref: M Collins, Cork
Latest from the medics and the management… Meath have been hit hard going into this one, if not in numbers, in quality. Going up against a full-back line that contains two All Stars in Peter Kelly and Michael Foley and an All Star nominee in Hugh McGrillen, they need as many attacking options as possible but Stephen Bray only makes the bench after recent injuries.
A greater concern still for the underdogs will be the absence of Kevin Reilly at full-back. He looked back to his best when picking up Seánie Furlong on day one against Wicklow but had Achilles tendon problems come day three against Carlow. Outside of Michael Shields, no full-back around is better suited to cope with the speed, strength and aerial ability of Tomás O’Connor who is the fulcrum of Kildare’s attack.
In Reilly’s absence, Ciarán Lenehan comes into their line-up at corner-back with Bryan Menton penciled in at three. As for the Lilywhites, Emmet Bolton is named at midfield where he’ll be detailed with following Graham Reilly up and down the park for 70 minutes although Pádraig O’Neill is likely to move back out beside Robert Kelly to form a more orthodox midfield.
Kildare – Shane Connolly, Hugh McGrillen, Michael Foley, Peter Kelly, Eoin Doyle, Morgan O’Flaherty, Ollie Lyons, Emmet Bolton, Robert Kelly, James Kavanagh, Mikey Conway, Padraig O’Neill, John Doyle, Tomás O’Connor, Eoghan O’Flaherty.
Meath – David Gallagher, Donal Keogan, Bryan Menton, Ciarán Lenehan, Donnacha Tobin, Shane McAnarney, Mickey Burke, Conor Gillespie, Brian Meade, Alan Forde, Damien Carroll, Graham Reilly, Brian Farrell, Joe Sheridan, Cian Ward.
Checking the odds… With Kildare dominating the rivalry, winning three of their last four championship meetings and starting Meath’s drop to Division Three and their own rise to Division One this league, it’s hardly any great surprise Kieran McGeeney’s side have been installed at heavy 2-7 favourites, with Seamus McEnaney’s side the inverse at 7-2.
Clues from the form guide… Despite Kildare being clearly better positioned to win silverware in Leinster and possibly the All Ireland in recent seasons, there’s never been a whole lot between the teams on days when Meath have started with a spirit and confidence that belonged to a different generation. This league it took an injury-time score from Ollie Lyons for Kildare to emerge from Navan with the victory and last championship there was only a goal in it when the sides met at the same venue in the qualifiers. In saying that, despite all the talk of Graham Geraghty’s disallowed goal last Leinster Championship there was still six points in it by the finish and in the All Ireland quarter-final of 2010 there was eight between them by the end. If anything, since all those games, Kildare are perceived to have improved, and if being relegated and taken to a replay by Carlow is anything to go by, this Meath team has weakened.
The game breakers are… Many! Mick Foley has always had the better of Joe Sheridan whenever they’ve tangled and if he does so again, Meath’s main playmaker is gone from the equation. If All Star Emmet Bolton can stop Graham Reilly’s runs from deep and free-shooting from distance then Meath’s most important scorer is gone from the equation.
And if Peter Kelly can continue to be one of the best corner-backs in football, then Brian Farrell will have an even harder time than he did when Ciarán Hyland picked him up over a month ago and Meath’s biggest scorer is gone from the equation. But given Kildare’s ambitions, there are many more positive key duels they’ll hope to win. If they can get a handle on midfield and limit Brian Meade’s mobility, they’ll have the possession to do damage with.
After that, it’s hard to see the Meath back six matching up. Aside from at full-back, they don’t look to have the defenders to shackle John Doyle, Eoghan O’Flaherty, Mikey Conway and James Kavanagh, who saves his best moments for his near neighbours.
Gazing into the crystal ball… There should only be one winner. Kildare should be free of the psychological shackles that once held them back when playing Meath. They have the better forwards, the better full-back line, the better man-markers to pick up players running from deep and if they can break even in the centre they are well on their way. On top of that, they have a physicality that only Cork, Dublin and Donegal can match so even if it’s close for 40 minutes, expect them to eventually jab their opponents to exhaustion before landing some late knockout blows.
And even with Emmet Bolton being distracted by man-marking duties, watch out for Ollie Lyons and the midfield’s ability to join the attack from deep, creating overlaps and plenty of problems for the opposition. If, by the finish, Kildare aren’t ahead by more than a goal, they’ll have done something very wrong.
Verdict: Kildare by five