Tyrone should see off threat of resurgent Meath
Allianz Football League Division One: Tyrone v Meath (Healy Park, 2pm Sunday)
BEWARE the bogeymen.
Meath were in danger of becoming a folk memory, something desperate Tyrone parents used to try to scare giggling children into better behaviour.
A barely believable threat, though: the idea that ‘You’ll never beat the Royals’ had become almost as relevant to modern life as, well, the royals.
The Red Hands seemed to have lifted themselves to a level above the former High Kings, with four consecutive wins over five seasons, 2012 to 2016, including two in Championship, albeit both of those only by two-point margins.
Yet then Mickey Harte’s men had to survive a serious scare in the summer of 2018. En route to an eventual All-Ireland Final appearance, they only escaped from the Pairc Tailteann cauldron after extra time, earned by a last-gasp equaliser from Cathal McShane.
The controversial circumstances of their exit, with a late ‘free’ denied to them, literally left Meath manager Andy McEntee in tears.
A similar reaction would have been equally understandable after the humiliating manner and margin of their defeat to Dublin in last year’s Leinster SFC Final, but even that seeming setback was a stepping stone along the journey of progress Meath have been making in recent years.
Reaching that provincial stage helped them towards their first appearance in the ‘Super Eights’ – and the Royals are now back at the top table of the league at long last.
Somewhat surprisingly, it’s been 14 years since Meath played Division One football, and even then it was ‘only’ Division 1B, widely regarded as inferior in quality to 1A. They had also been yo-yo-ing up and down in the first half of that decade, so would be delighted to get some stability – and extra experience – by staying up this season.
In one sense Meath are entitled to regard themselves as part of a ‘top eight’, having topped Division Two last season (albeit then losing the final to Donegal), before reaching the All-Ireland quarter-finals.
However, their results at that top level should temper their raised hopes, even if their local newspaper, the Meath Chronicle, heralds ‘Plenty of optimism ahead of Omagh opener’.
Part of that positivity comes from ‘smelling blood’ from the Red Hands. Being without McShane – strongly linked over the winter with a move to Aussie Rules – is clearly a major blow, as are the absences of two other recent Allstars, injured captain Mattie Donnelly and Peter Harte, who has been abroad on honeymoon. Connor McAliskey has stepped away too.
Meath, though, are missing a key forward of their own, Mickey Newman ruled out due to a hip operation, possibly for the entire League.
Besides, although Donnelly, Harte, and McShane are undoubtedly excellent, Tyrone have plenty of strength in depth. Not of that quality, sure, but there should still be enough in the Red Hand ranks to win what is, after all, a home game against a promoted team.
Although Tyrone don’t have to leave Ulster for their first three matches they’ll have to make the most of home advantage, with only three games at Healy Park – and the other two visitors being Kerry and Dublin.
For all the pessimistic noises sounding from outside, though, indeed perhaps because of them, there’ll be a strong sense within the Tyrone camp that they can show they remain a team to be feared.
The bogeymen beware.