Injuries, defeats and tough days – Meath and Cork desperate for 2022 season to improve

IT IS THREE years since the Meath and Cork footballers crossed paths in the league arena.

That Division 2 clash on a Saturday night in February 2019 saw Meath sign off with a six-point cushion by the final whistle and they journeyed home from Páirc Uí Rinn content, having reinforced their position of superiority at the top of the table.

Cork were struggling without a win from their first three games and the match provided a hint of what was to come for both that spring – Meath wound up promoted and ready to embrace life in the top tier, Cork ended up relegated and fell through the trapdoor to the third grade.

On Sunday they renew acquaintances, this time in Navan, but again in a Division 2 encounter weighted with importance. The backdrop is different. Neither are in the relegation spots as things stand but without a win in their combined eight appearances to date this season, they are looking anxiously over their shoulders. Meath are only a point clear of the drop zone, Cork only escaping on scoring difference and that’s by a wafer-thin margin with their total of -23, marginally better than Down (-24) and Offaly (-25).

Páirc Tailteann hosts Sunday’s game.

Source: Brian Reilly-Troy/INPHO

A Round 5 game in those circumstances would naturally be surrounded in tension but that’s compounded by the shift in the summer football system that awaits.

Division 3 and 4 league teams will be participating this year in the Tailteann Cup, rather than the Sam Maguire race, and with that based on the promotion and relegation outcomes from the current league, the stakes are raised for those dropping out of Division 2.

If Meath or Cork were to fall, they could avoid the Tailteann Cup by reaching a provincial final, but the path there for both is far from straightforward. Meath will be favoured to win their quarter-final against Laois or Wicklow, but with a semi-final likely awaiting then against Dublin, it would be a sizeable task to break the stranglehold their neighbours have exerted on Leinster football.

Cork can relate. They have home advantage for their Munster semi-final on 7 May, but taking down a Kerry team that hammered them by 22 points last summer and a county that have lifted every Munster senior crown bar one since 2012, is an onerous task.

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The Cork footballers before this season’s league game against Roscommon.

Source: Bryan Keane/INPHO

History and tradition would put a sharp focus on the removal of a powerhouse like Meath or Cork from the All-Ireland race. Between 1996 and 2010, the pair won three All-Ireland titles and enjoyed seven final appearances between them.

Those days at the top seem like a distant memory and yet there is a more recent experience to illustrate the slide they have experienced.

At the end of 2019 season, both would have had reason to be upbeat. Securing Super 8s qualification was indicative of a rise in their fortunes. They lost the six games they played when challenging the country’s football elite but there was promise for stretches of those games (Meath against Mayo and Kerry, Cork against Dublin and Tyrone), to suggest that the experience stockpiled would serve them well as they sought to close the gap.

Instead neither have pushed on. Cork have been defeated in two Munster finals, chastening experiences in contrasting ways, while Meath have lost twice to Dublin in championship games, contrasting performances with the same conclusion. The league in 2020 saw Meath relegated and Cork promoted, before in 2021 neither made a successful charge to get promoted from Division 2.

So what has this season revealed about both?

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Meath were on the backfoot straight away. They trailed 1-9 to 0-0 at half-time against Galway and by 1-12 to 1-3 at half-time against Roscommon. Stormy conditions hindered good football on both occasions but those starts proved costly and paved the way for ultimate defeats.

Patrick Kelly and Gavin McGowan after Galway played Meath.

Source: Ben Brady/INPHO

If that Connacht duo are chasing promotion, Meath then met fellow relegation scrappers Down and Offaly but couldn’t chisel out a victory against either. A pair of draws hasn’t provided a springboard, albeit they showed guts to rescue a result against Offaly with a late goal.

Cork have been knocked over by three defeats, discovering why Roscommon, Derry and Galway are all high fliers. A draw against Clare provided some encouragement and the remaining fixture list looks more promising as they face teams of a similar stature in Meath, Down and Offaly. The striking split in standards in this division means Cork’s schedule always looked less daunting at the back end.

Cork’s challenges can be attributed in part to the scale of change in their setup. In their first three games, 13 players featured without previous league or championship experience at senior level – John Cooper, Joe Grimes, Rory Maguire, David Buckley, Mark Cronin, Chris Óg Jones, Mark Buckley, Shane Merritt, Paudie Allen, Fionn Herlihy, Chris Kelly, Billy Hennessy and Daniel O’Connell. They are a collection of players rising from Cork’s 2019 U20 winning squad or off the back of promising recent runs at local level with their clubs.

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It has been a harsh learning environment to be exposed to, little time to adjust when taking on more seasoned and cohesive teams. Having experienced operators alongside them would help emerging footballers, but of the 20 players that lined out in last summer’s Munster final, nine weren’t available last time out against Galway. A mix of reasons – retirement, opting out, injury and squad changes – contributed. 14 of the Derry team that breezed past Cork last month in Owenbeg, had played when they were pipped by Donegal in Ulster last July. The contrast in collective understanding was noticeable, as was the difference in conditioning.

In a wider sense this all illustrates the huge turnover Cork football has experienced with a staggering 91 players having lined out in senior league or championship for the county  since the start of 2017.

A chaotic injury list has also been a hammer blow. Cork’s two best defenders – Sean Powter and Sean Meehan – are both currently on the treatment table, watching on for critical games when their input is needed. Other promising defenders like Liam O’Donovan, Nathan Walsh and Maurice Shanley are longer-term injury absentees. Further up the pitch, options like Brian Hayes, Brian Hartnett, Damien Gore and Cathail O’Mahony have missed the league to date. Look beyond the current senior setup and two of the county’s best players in last year’s Munster U20 win – Diarmaid Phelan and Conor Corbett – are at present out with torn cruciates.

Meath can understand that upheaval. They have seen pillars of their team like full-back Conor McGill and midfielder Bryan Menton out injured this spring. Mentor’s partner in the middle, Ronan Jones, only returned recently to action. Centre-back and captain Shane McEntee will miss the rest of the football year as he has been deployed on an overseas mission with the Irish Defence Forces.

Scoring has been an issue for Meath, only Down (37) have a lower aggregate points total across the four divisions in this year’s league than the Royals with 45. For Cork it’s at the opposite end with no team in the league having shipped more than their tally of 79.

Manager Andy McEntee and Keith Ricken head into a critical closing stretch then of the league. It’s McEntee’s sixth year in charge, a position only retained after last October’s vote to remove him did not get sufficient support at a county board meeting in Trim. It is Ricken’s first year in charge, the good vibes after his work with county underage teams, preceding difficult experiences at the top level.

It’s been a tough and challenging start to 2022 for both setups.

Sunday has the look of a defining day and a badly-needed chance to start turning the corner.

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