PREVIEW: Offaly footballers face stiff test against resurgent Meath
Offaly boss John Maughan has been talking up Meath this week as he prepares his young charges to tackle the Royals in the Leinster Championship on enemy territory in Navan this Sunday, May 12.
You couldn't really blame the Mayo man who has been a steadying influence on the county since his appointment last year. Meath are a team on the up having secured promotion to Division 1 of the National Football League earlier this year.
Maughan has had to contend with dwindling numbers in Offaly and recently told the Irish Times that he was taken aback by the number of players unwilling to commit, coming from Mayo where lads would die to get into the jersey.
The likes of Sean Pender, James Lalor, Sean Doyle, Michael Brazil, Alan Mulhall, Brian Darby and Conor McNamee were all involved last year but have either retired or opted out this term. Nigel Dunne dramatically left the panel earlier this year, saying he felt "isolated and unwelcome."
Unlike Meath or other strongholds, Offaly is a numbers game and these departures are even more keenly felt here. A different county could absorb the loss of nine or ten players and consolidate matters with readymade replacements.
We have no such luxury in Offaly and Maughan had to go to the well, delving into the lower ranks in terms of clubs in the county to find players. He even went to Dublin to get Kilmacud Crokes man Shane Horan onboard. Niall McNamee was coaxed out of retirement as Maughan scrambled to bring experience into the camp.
Most would agree he has done a good job; even with the dropping average age, Maughan has fostered a committed panel who he says are working out of their skin for each other and the jersey. He's a manager who would much rather have 30, albeit inexperienced, players than a batch of, perhaps more talented, uncommitted ones.
On paper, Offaly's 2018 and 2019 league campaigns are identical. A last gasp win on the final day ensured survival in Division 3 yet again, the only difference being we actually needed a favour this year to go along with that win. Laois did us that favour by beating Carlow and we uttered a sigh of relief. Perish the thought of an already diminishing squad slipping into the doldrums of Division 4 and the knock-on effects that would have.
Instead, we got the bounce and can look forward once more. Examining our 2019 league campaign more closely, Offaly were competitive in all but one of their games. Down gave us a fairly hefty beating but other than that we pushed the envelope with everyone. We were out of sight and should have won against Westmeath and were undone by a barely believable own goal against Louth in O'Connor Park.
If those two games had gone our way we would have been muscling into the promotion race on nine points, but alas, 'what could have been' is merely dressing room talk for all teams; it's never put points on the board. For most of the league, Offaly played fairly decent football and it was direct, food for the soul for Offaly fans who endured choke football throughout 2018.
That direct style, utilising Niall McNamee, was to the fore in recent weeks as Offaly beat Clare, the team that knocked them out of the qualifiers by two points last summer, in a challenge at the Faithful Fields. Offaly scored 2-21 that evening and although you can't read too much into a challenge match in April, the willingness to play the game the right way is evident among the players and their mentors.
Meath had a brief and utterly contrasting championship in 2018 with just two games. They were turfed out of Leinster in their first game, a quarter-final with Longford, a team Offaly drew with this year in the league.
In front of the Sky Sports cameras a few weeks later, Meath were rank outsiders against eventual All-Ireland finalists Tyrone but it turned out to be one of the games of the summer with extra time needed for Mickey Harte's men to dig out a one-point win in Pairc Tailteann, Navan.
That may have been the key to Meath putting in a big performance; the home crowd. Navan is not an easy place to go and one thing can be guaranteed on Sunday; the Royal supporters will turn out. They are loud and act very much like a 16th man. It helps that their team have been reformed on the field in 2019.
They topped an ultra-competitive Division 2 containing Donegal, Kildare, Cork, Clare, Fermanagh, Tipperary and Armagh. Their only defeats in the division came against Donegal in round two and in the subsequent league final. They lost by just two points on both occasions and hopes are high in Meath that they can push on and mix it with the big boys of Division 1 next year.
Unsurprisingly, Meath are heavy favourites to beat Offaly and resign the Faithful to the qualifiers early yet again. Bookies are offering staggering odds of 1/14 for Meath to win. The upset, an Offaly win, is a 15/2 shot. Sentimentality has no place in betting and although the odds seem excessively stacked against Offaly, even 15/2 isn't tempting enough to part ways with a few bob on a bet.
The soundings from John Maughan during the week show he's as aware of that likelihood as the bookies, but he'll be setting the lads up to have a real crack at it, and with so many young players in the fold, hopefully, their naivety at this level will manifest itself in a 'show no fear' approach.
Their game management skills when in front against teams in the league left a lot to be desired but as underdogs and in a position where they'll likely be chasing Meath's tails, it could bring out the best of them. The handicap has been set a -7/+7 and I reckon they can beat the handicap with Offaly (+7) coming in at odds of EVENS.
Novelty punters may be tempted by the 14/1 odds offered for Johnny Moloney, very often used in the full-forward line throughout the league, to bag a goal at any stage of the game. Although he's been named at centreback for this game, don't be surprised to see him up around the opposition square at some stage.
VERDICT: Meath win by five points
The game takes place at Pairc Tailteann in Navan at 3pm on Sunday, May 12.