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'All the pressure is on Dublin, they're red-hot favourites. Meath have nothing to lose'
Fairytale senior newcomers Meath stand in the way of Dublin’s Drive for Five tomorrow.

THE COMPLETION OF the Drive for Five, or the ultimate happy ending to a fairytale story and a maiden All-Ireland senior crown?

That’s the big question will be answered after tomorrow’s TG4 All-Ireland senior final.

cork-v-meath-tg4-all-ireland-senior-ladies-football-championship-semi-final Stephen McCarthy / SPORTSFILE Meath duo Vikki Wall and Katie Newe after beating Cork in the semi-final. Stephen McCarthy / SPORTSFILE / SPORTSFILE

A real novel decider pairing, Dublin and Meath face off at this stage for the very first time with the Brendan Martin trophy on the line at Croke Park.

There’s no shortage of interesting storylines and talking points heading into this one, but the exciting new-look final reminds us that we could see someone other than Dublin or Cork crowned for the first time since 2004.

Before Dublin’s four-in-a-row came Cork’s reign of terror; the Sky Blues the only ones to break the chain in 2010. Given the storied rivalry between the counties, and the fact that they locked horns more often than not in Dublin’s seven successive final appearances to date, it was fitting that Meath would rip up the traditional script and send Cork packing in the semi-final. Dublin’s eighth decider appearance in-a-row sees them face a very different opponent.

The Royals’ remarkable rise to their debut senior final in their first year back in the top-flight has been well documented at this stage. From 40-point demolitions and hammerings a few short years back, to a rebuilding job through the intermediate ranks; they’re now at the top table after an impressive 2021 showing, and looking to cause a major upset against one of the greatest teams to ever play the game.

It must be pointed out that Mick Bohan’s side have been largely untouchable and irresistible over the past few years. They have won every championship match they’ve played under his stewardship this term, a record stretching back to the 2016 All-Ireland final. Their semi-final win over Mayo was their 25th straight championship triumph.

But Meath, who have made no secret of their belief, high expectations and standards over the past few weeks, will be hoping to spoil the party — and start one of their own.

Earlier this week, Bohan noted that the Royals’ structure and system is “very different to anything I’ve seen in the women’s game before”. They play an interesting brand of counter-attacking football, with their half forward line dropping to form an organised blanket defence, while they all break at speed, and with mayhem.

It was clear to see that other counties didn’t have their homework done on their rather curious style this year, but Dublin — whose trademark running game and sheer physicality always pose serious problems for their opponents — certainly will.

Following Armagh’s quarter-final exit at the hands of Meath and then Cork’s semi-final loss, Orchard stalwart Caroline O’Hanlon spoke at length about how impressed she was with the senior newcomers.

Looking ahead to the decider against Dublin, she sees more of the same coming.

ladies (1) Inpho. Dublin boss Mick Bohan and Meath manager Eamonn Murray. Inpho.

“I expect them to do what they’ve been doing consistently,” O’Hanlon said. “They get a lot of players behind the ball, but they break fast, and they have a very balanced team.

“They have a lot of good players, they play at a [high] standard and they share the workload. While the work rate’s very high, there’s no one or two players that’s carrying the can. They’re all contributing, and they’re all working hard, creating space, doing the dirty work for each other, you know.

“Dublin are very experienced, they’ve been around the block. Obviously Cork and Meath have similar sort of defensive styles. I’d say Meath started slowly, or a bit nervy maybe, and that was probably the Croke Park factor. The fact that they’ve had that under their belt… they have nothing to lose.

All the pressure is on Dublin, they’re red-hot favourites. Meath are very confident and they’re very sure of their system. I don’t think they’ll have anything to lose. I think that they’re a dangerous force.”

Dublin star Sinéad Goldrick, named to start after a semi-final substitute appearance marked her return from a serious hamstring injury sustained earlier this year, feels the same.

Speaking at the launch of ‘Girls Play Too 2: Inspiring Stories Of Irish Sportswomen’
last month, the eight-time All-Star hailed the freedom and belief their opponents have been playing with.

“We’ve been massively impressed with Meath throughout the whole year,” she said at the time.

“They’re such a unit, they have superstars and they have a lot of a team work ethic too. Everyone has a role, they all do it together, they’re very fit. So it will be a tough task.

“When people are playing with freedom that’s when they’re at their most dangerous, and that’s definitely how Meath are playing. That’s something we’re really conscious of.

“They’re young and confident, and they’ve earned it. I think against Armagh all of their forwards contributed to the team. They’re a very good unit in terms of their set-up and then they have the likes of Vikki Wall and Emma Duggan that are just exceptional footballers.

I think a lot of people might be thinking that they’re underdogs but I would see them as an exceptional outfit so we’re going to have to do our homework. I think it’s going to be a really exciting game of football. Both of our styles are free-flowing so I think it’s going to be a really tight game.”

Regardless of the result on Sunday, Meath have certainly captured the imagination this season, announcing themselves as a real force in the senior ranks.

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There’s no doubt that they’ll be there or thereabouts going forward, building on the remarkable strides they’ve made over the past few years.

Goldrick certainly expects them to stick around, with a competitive Leinster championship needed once again as the potential for another great Dublin-Meath rivalry unfolds.

sinead-goldrick-and-orla-finn Ryan Byrne / INPHO Sinéad Goldrick facing Cork's Orla Finn. Ryan Byrne / INPHO / INPHO

“Yeah,” she nods. “They have a very young squad and they play with freedom. I’m watching them play and they’re really enjoying it. I think you can see that on the pitch, that they’re enjoying it and they definitely will continue on for a few years.

“Or six or seven years, sure look at Cork and the Dublin rivalry, that’s something special and Meath, definitely with them being such a young team, I think they will be around for a long time.

“It’s also great for Leinster football where we haven’t had two teams in Leinster in an All-Ireland in I don’t know how long, quite a while.”

That all adds to tomorrow, with crowds back in situ in Croke Park for the triple-header of ladies football finals and Hill 16 tickets sold out.

While restrictions mean the record crowd of 56,114 from 2019 won’t again be broken, the injection of noise and colour will be incredible, Goldrick agrees.

And with the ladies footballers the only Dublin team left standing in championship fare, the Foxrock-Cabinteely and Melbourne AFLW star is hoping for a boost in support to help get the five-in-a-row bid over the line.

“Anyone that has ever been to an All-Ireland final day knows how special it is. The atmosphere is electric. The Dublin ladies are the only ones in an All-Ireland final. With the Dubs supporters, we’re hoping to get huge numbers out because it does make a difference.

“It’s a day to celebrate and I know from Dublin’s perspective we just want to showcase the skillset and how we can play football. We just want to peak at our performance, as best as we can so I think it’ll be a good day for ladies football and hopefully, for Dublin.”

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