Andy McEntee busy rebuilding Meath football's culture
By John Harrington
When Meath were winning All-Ireland Football Championships in the 1980s and 1990s, they were renowned for being a mentally as well as physically tough team.
They were the sort of side that always came out fighting when their backs were against the wall and had a knack for winning big games in the face of considerable adversity.
Nowadays that sort of quality is more often described as a team’s ‘culture’.
It’s no coincidence that when an All-Black rugby player or Dublin footballer is asked to explain how they manage to be so consistently driven and successful, the world ‘culture’ pops up frequently.
The Meath football team had a ‘culture’ of its own once, and current manager Andy McEntee is determined to rebuild it.
“When people talk about culture they talk about hard work, that's where it starts,” McEntee told GAA.ie.
“It's a way of behaving, it's a way of handling yourself on the pitch and off the pitch. It's a way of behaving when the chips are down.
“My experience has been that you get that mental toughness from working hard. I'd like to think that's coming with this group of players because they're certainly putting in the work and hours.
“Maybe we do need to experience those lows to make them realise that if you don't perform to a certain level you're just not going to get results, not at this level of the game.
“Maybe you need all the bad experiences to toughen you up to the ways of the world. I'm hopeful that a lot of these things will come together at some point.
“I think fellas need to realise that nothing goes up in a straight line. There's always setbacks here and there and how you react to them is more important than the actual set-back itself.”
McEntee is fond of reminding nostalgic Meath supporters who pine for the past that the Royal County footballers who became household names in the late eighties were far from lauded in their own county in the earlier part of that decade.
And it was only by applying the harsh lessons they learned from serial failure that they learned how to become the sort of team who more often than not found a way to win.
“People forget that for a long time that Meath team couldn't beat Dublin. Meath didn't win a Leinster title from 1970 to 1986, 16 years,” said McEntee.
“They won a National League in 1975 when Dublin were All-Ireland Champions. Lost the first round of Leinster to Louth in 1975. Lost to Dublin in '76 and '77 (in Leinster Finals).
“Went to a stage where Meath lost the first round of Leinster in '81 and '82 to Wexford and Longford.
“So, I mean, we've been here before. And every county gets a phase where you're just not as successful and you just have to keep at it.
“Look at that team of the late eighties. Everyone would say they were hard-nosed fellas who knew how to win. They knew how to lose for a long time too. That's probably what made it more valuable when they did start winning.
“I'd like to think that we could find ourselves in a situation where all the experience that lads have gained, good or bad, will stand to them at some stage.”
If it does and McEntee manages to extract the absolute maximum from this group of Meath footballers would that be enough to see them genuinely challenging for silverware again?
You could argue that it wouldn’t, simply because Meath as a county aren’t producing as many quality footballers as Dublin are.
There has been significant investment in Meath’s coaching structures at underage level in the last two years, but Dublin’s conveyor belt of talent has been producing quality footballers for a lot longer than that.
“You have to have an awful lot of credit to John Costello and Dublin GAA who took a view 10 or 12 years ago to put structures in place and coaches in the schools and clubs and they're not getting their just rewards,” admits McEntee.
“You can argue with it or dislike it all you like, but you have to admire what they’ve done and you have to follow suit if you want to compete at that level.
“Things have improved dramatically in Meath in the last number of years but it's not going to happen overnight. But I definitely think the structures are now in place to start that now.
“The bigger volume of good players that you have in the county, the better chance you have of doing something, there's no doubt about that.
“Having said all of that, the challenge for us is to be the best that we can be and that's what we're looking to achieve at the moment.”
Perhaps Meath fell off the pace in Leinster because they believed that tradition alone would always be enough to keep them competitive and in doing so took their eye off the ball.
But if they can get everything else right, then McEntee believes that tradition can still be a key ingredient when you’re trying to build what every team aspires to having – that winning culture.
“I wouldn't underestimate tradition at all,” said McEntee. “If you can get to that level of fitness and preparation then tradition can be that missing ingredient.
“I'd like to think that if we can get ourselves to that level we'd like to get to, that's where you could get the benefit of tradition.”