It may only be the start of February but this coming weekend is a big one for the county in footballing terms. We’ve two hugely important games scheduled for the weekend and, while the result of either isn’t going to be decisive in setting the trajectory for us in 2020, at the same time they’re both matches we simply have to win.
The first one is on at MacHale Park on Saturday. There, at 2pm, the county’s U20 footballers take on Connacht champions Galway in the quarter-final of this year’s U20 provincial Championship.
The U20 Championship has been shifted to early spring this year and the entire thing will be run off before the end of March. It’s the old-fashioned, straight knockout format so, barring a draw, either ourselves or Galway will see our U20 season end this Saturday.
We’ve had a productive lead-in to this year’s U20 Championship, having won the Leo Murphy Cup a few weeks back. Oisin Mullin – who has broken into the first fifteen at Senior level this year – will also be with the U20s this weekend and he’s one of five players Ger Flanagan listed in a piece in this week’s Mayo News as ones to watch – that’s here.
Galway have had the hex on us at underage for some time now,though, and they had a relatively easy win over us at U20 last year when we met in the Connacht final in July. As Ger Flanagan points out in his match preview for the Mayo News (paper and digital versions), we haven’t beaten Galway at this grade (formerly U21) in the Championship since way back in 2012 so a victory over them on Saturday would be as welcome as it’s overdue.
The young Tribesmen are sure to be a tough proposition, though, as Ger points out in his match preview, the shift from U18 to U17 at Minor level in 2018 meant that this crop of U20 players never got to play each other in Minor Championship. That means they’ll face each other on Saturday without any prior form at Minor level to go on.
Hopefully that factor will help us upset the odds at MacHale Park on Saturday. Good luck to the lads then.
The following afternoon, meanwhile, we have a rather novel outing in the National League. It’s seventeen years since we last played Meath in the NFL at Páirc Tailteann, with the home side coming out on top that March day in 2003 at Navan by 1-16 to 0-12.
The Royals were relegated from the top division in 2006 and this year is their first season back in Division One since then. They’re propping up the table after two rounds, having lost to both Tyrone and Donegal, while we’re sitting precariously just one place above them, a solitary point to our name after two games.
Already shorn of several regulars, we’ll most likely be down three of the starting fifteen from the Dublin game the next day. Jordan Flynn is suspended while Oisin Mullin is – quite rightly – rostered with the U20s this weekend. Colm Boyle hasn’t been confirmed as a definite absentee but I’d be doubtful that his knee will have recovered sufficiently to enable him to line out on Sunday.
It’s a testament to how well Oisin has bedded in at Senior level that we know we’ll miss him against Meath. An obvious replacement, though, is Eoin O’Donoghue, a player who enjoyed a standout League campaign for us in 2108 but who was used only sparingly by James Horan last year. James Stretton and James McCormack would also be options at the back for us, as would Keith Higgins if he’s fit to play.
Lee Keegan, with a full half of match practice under his belt now, is likely to start in Navan, having replaced Boyler at half-time the last night. We’ve a number of options to replace Jordan Flynn, including Conor Loftus, Bryan Walsh and others.
Meath have player issues of their own, with main scoring threat Mickey Newman out for the League and goalkeeping issues that puts our travails in relation to that position firmly into the ha’penny place.
The ref for Sunday, by the way, is Sean Hurson of Tyrone. We saw him most recently on that scorching afternoon down in Killarney last July when we lost to Kerry in the Super 8s.
The weather is set to be very different in Navan on Sunday and it’s not set to be all that hectic in Castlebar on Saturday either. Very wet and very windy would appear to be the order of the day both days.
That’s likely to mean a large travelling contingent banging at the door in Páirc Tailteann early on Sunday, well before the 2pm throw-in time. It’s been a while since I was last in Navan – Vinnies played a Leinster club final there in, I think, 2014 – and, from memory, the stand isn’t the biggest nor is it the most modern either. By the sounds of that forecast, though, the stand is the only sensible option as it certainly won’t be a day for reclining on the bucolic grassy banks that rise behind both ends of the ground.
Sunday’s match is a real crunch one for us in this League campaign. Although we’ve seen a few promising performances from some of the players – especially the newbies – all we’ve to show for our efforts is that plundered point we came away from Ballybofey with.
To be honest, this is a match we simply have to win if we’re aiming to stay in the top division. A victory in Navan will send us on to the Monaghan game two weeks afterwards in good spirits so it’s vital we get the result we need this Sunday.