WE CAN COMPLAIN all we want about football, about the demise of the middle-tier and rise of the top-tier making things predictable in the early part of the season and leaving no room for romance.
But truthfully, such an attitude is like sitting at home on a sunny day and complaining of boredom.
It may not cause ripples that will make their way right through to August but last weekend Longford beating Laois was a fair old plop in the pond and this week Wicklow have a serious chance of beating Meath.
Read those last few words again because few people have ever had the chance of saying them seriously at any time in history.
Yet everything seems ripe and juicy when it comes to talk of an upset this Sunday. Dr Cullen Park is the perfect ground for early-season championship football as a decent crowd packs the place and provides a brilliant atmosphere. The television cameras are only there for highlights purposes meaning it will be thronged as even the neutral wants a piece of this. There’s this weather we forgot existed. And then there are the two teams, both now Division Three sides and each with so much to prove for various reasons, making it difficult to know what way it’ll go.
It’s lost in the grey haze of hsitory now, and Meath fans never saw it this way, but early on there seemed so much sense about Banty’s appointment because the county needed an outsider to bring peace. One mediocre season wasn’t good enough under Eamonn Barry in 2006. One good and one bad year wasn’t enough under Colm Coyle who was next in. And when an All Ireland semi-final and Leinster title in successive seasons under Eamonn O’Brien didn’t suffice, Meath had no choice but to look elsewhere. The method was madness but the new man made sense in terms of tactics too as Meath had become like a holey bucket. Their forwards kept filling it but their defence was so open it emptied it but here was Banty coming from a background of disciplined and mean teams that often delved into the dark arts to keep the score down.
Yet here we are a year-and-a-half on and Harry Murphy is licking his lips like a drifter sitting down to a steak. With no Mark Ward about in the opposition ranks, there’s no doubting who has the better midfield. James Stafford has bulked up and turned himself into one of the finest fielders in the game. Beside him Rory Finn doesn’t look out of place and has the ability to break forward unnoticed, take up good positions and crucially finish. Indeed if Meath are to crawl onwards they simply cannot go toe-to-toe in that sector. They’ll have to alter their kickouts, break ball and allow Seamus Kenny to wander forward from wing-back and get shoveling dirty ball like only he can. Therein lies the key to this game because there’s little between the sides thereafter.
Meath may have a better full-back in Kevin Reilly, but little else about a new-looking defensive division inspired confidence this league. It’s a worrying area for Wicklow too as Anthony McLoughlin at three and the entire half-back line have yet to convince us. Those faults will only be exaggerated by two exciting attacks. Wicklow have the option of giving it to Leighton Glynn short and a Plan B of going direct to Seánie Furlong and hoping Tony Hannon has a good dead-ball day. Meath have an inside forward line that will goal and in Graham Reilly one of the better long-range shooters in the province.
As for what will actually happen? Maybe our brains aren’t allowing us to the see the true picture in front of us and maybe history is skewing our perceptions, but we’ve a feeling a siege mentality will have helped Meath, they’ve more to prove, Kevin Reilly will shackle Seanie Furlong, Seamus Kenny will win Man of the Match for doing a job on Leighton Glynn and dominating the breaking ball stakes, one or both of Joe Sheridan and Cian Ward will goal and we’ll have a classic that isn’t decided for once and for all until late in a glorious day. Meath to win but even at that, don’t say there’s no room for romance in football.
Verdict: Meath by four
Leinster SFC First Round
Meath v Wicklow
Sunday, Dr Cullen Park, Carlow, 3.30
MEATH D Gallagher; M Burke, K Reilly, S McAnarney; D Tobin, B Menton, S Kenny; C Gillespie, B Meade; A Forde, M Collins, G Reilly; B Farrell, J Sheridan, C Ward
WICKLOW J Flynn; C Hyland, A McLoughlin, A Byrne; D Healy, M McLoughlin, S Kelly; J Stafford, R Finn; L Glynn, D O’Sullivan, Darren Hayden; T Hannon, S Furlong, J McGrath
Follow all the action from Dr Cullen Park with score updates, in-game analysis and reaction with Ewan MacKenna from 3.00 Sunday on The Score.