If you dream it, you can do it. Though I doubt even the most fanatical Meath person, cough, could’ve predicted this. It’s not all that long ago the Meath Ladies team registered only three points in a game and were somewhere below rock bottom. Today, the revolution was completed. They brought the Brendan Martin Cup home from Croke Park with them for the first time in the county’s history.
Coming as it does in the wake of All Ireland victories for the county’s male Minor footballers and U-20 hurling team, it’s the latest chapter in what has been a wonderful period for Gaels in the Royal County. One which has imbued the place with hope for the future and lifted the spirits of the people immeasurably.
But there is a whole other story at play here. The tale of Meath Ladies Football, rising from the ashes like a Phoenix. Inching back toward the mountain top, Eamonn Murray leading them back into the light in the fashion of a Messiah. A shepherd gathering his flock, nurturing them and, mostly, having belief in them at a time when few, maybe not even themselves, had.
He knew the talent was there, having, along with my friend and colleague Fergal Lynch, moulded a lot of it at underage level. Rome may not have been built in a day but how the fortunes of this team have been re-directed with such rapidity is nothing short of astounding. Having not all that long ago lost out to Tipperary for promotion from Div. 3 of the National League. Then, of course, the lost two consecutive Intermediate Championship finals to Tyrone and Tipperary respectively.
One thing this group has obviously never lacked is self belief. How else to characterise a team which has come through so much adversity and now stands as the greatest in the game. Losing one final might break some teams, coming up short in two would make it seem like a long way back for most players. Yet there has been something almost business-like about how these Royal ladies have gone about their ladies go about their endeavors.
From the time they summarily swept Sligo aside to go up in the league, there has been a drive and focus about them that only the great sides have. Having withstood a spirited Wesmeath to garner the Mary Quinn Cup days before last Christmas, there was never any question they’d have the nous to hold their own at the top table.
They wanted and were capable of more than that though. Much more. Still, even after they had overcome Kerry in their league final you dared not dream too big. After all, the higher echelons of the game was festooned with some of the greatest and most decorated amalgams the game has seen – Mayo, Cork and Dublin.
But still. Maybe it was the sporting romantic in me. Or the personal link with Eamonn. Or that there was such a strong representation from Dunboyne. Or that there was a Meath team in Kepak jerseys again. Yeah, it was that. Mostly that. Look, whatever it was that germinated the inclination, the longer their journey went on the more definite the gut feeling was that the autumnal harvest was possible.
Ironically, those instincts were only heightened when they lost their opening encounter at the highest level. Reason being it was to Cork, in Cork. And it took the most decorated side the game has seen until the dying embers of the contest to extricate themselves from Murray’s maze-like defence.
The old maxim about learning more in defeat than victory was never more apt than in this instance. Having defeated Armagh and Tipperary after the Cork game, there was a justified air of quiet confidence before the re-match with Ephie Fitzgerald’s charges at the penultimate hurdle. Feelings gloriously vindicated as they displayed all the guile, skill and heart synonymous with Meath teams over the years to pull off one of the great rescue missions in the county’s long and decorated history and earn themselves a cut at the Brendan Martin Cup.
If probably understandable, the pre-match odds were still an insult to Meath. Dublin were favourites yes, and deservedly so, but 1/10 against the most improved team and, by many metrics, the best team in the country for the last 12 months? You’re having a laugh. In the lead in to the final, my honest, dispassionate appraisal was that if the challengers were able to hold their own for the first 20 minutes their fate was their own to decide.
On that score, Vikki Wall winning the throw in and charging forward to create the first score – a Stacey Grimes free – was a fair statement of intent. But it got better for the underdogs. Emma Duggan’s eye for goal has defined this season for Meath. Whether or not the prodigiously talented Dunboyne teenager meant it or not nobody by the banks of the Boyne will care a jot, but when Duggan’s sumptuous lob evaded Ciara Trant in the Dublin goal to put the green and gold 1-02 to 0-01 clear, the sense that something momentous was afoot was irrepressible.
As would only have been expected, the five-in-a-row chasing Dubs worked their way back into it thanks to scores from Hannah Tyrrell and Sinead Ahearne and Carla Rowe, but Meath responded in kind via the excellent Niamh O’Sullivan and Bridgetta Lynch as well as corner back Emma Troy who bombed forward to curl over two exquisite scores to leave Murray’s magicians with a healthy 1-08 to 0-06 cushion before they went out to attack into Hill 16.
Dublin can have been under no illusions as to the task they had on hand at that stage and so sprung multiple All Ireland winner Niamh McEvoy – an injury concern all week – from the bench at the break. The arrival of the St Sylvester’s player gave the blues an obvious shot in the arm as scores followed from Aherne, Tyrrell and Kate O’Sullivan and left things on an absolute knife edge as the clock wound down.
However, try as they might, Dublin couldn’t find a past the rearguard on which this journey has been founded or the imperious Monica McGuirke in goal. McEvoy was narrowly wide with Dublin’s last realistic chance and the majestic Meath defence lifted the siege before they broke upfield and Niamh O’Sullivan curled over a point worthy of winning any encounter.
History was made at one end and denied at the other. I’ll write more when I get my head around it all!