PwC GPA Player of the Month for ladies’ football in July, Emma Duggan (Meath) with her award at her home club Dunboyne GAA. SPORTSFILE.
Royal Rising

The teenage sensation leading Meath to All-Ireland semi-final in first year back senior

Emma Duggan: ‘Reading articles, it’s been like, ‘It was a shock win’. The most important thing for us is that we believe.’

THE MEATH LADIES football story is a fantastic one. In this, their first year back in the senior ranks, they find themselves in an All-Ireland semi-final, with a real chance of causing a massive upset.

The Royals have been on an incredible journey over the past few years. A snapshot: heavy defeats in the senior ranks — rock-bottom a 40-point loss to Cork in the 2015 All-Ireland qualifiers — to requesting relegation to intermediate level after the 2016 campaign; and a rebuilding job from there which saw them reach the semi-final in 2017 and finals in 2018 and 2019, before making it third time’s a charm in December 2020.

They’ve also risen the league ranks from Division 3 to Division 1, ending a a seven-year wait for a top-flight return in June.

19-year-old Emma Duggan has been central to their remarkable rise, the Dunboyne sharpshooter leading the scoring charge since her arrival on the scene in 2019. Now one of the top forwards in the game, it’s hard to believe she only sat her Leaving Certificate this summer.

As the build-up to their last-four battle against Cork — who else? — in Croke Park on Sunday afternoon ramps up, the first question put to her is the one everyone wants to know.

When ye got promoted from intermediate last year, did ye think ye could go this far?

“A lot of people have been asking this,” Duggan grins. “At the very start of the year, our main focus was to retain senior status for 2022. In the back of our minds, we knew that this point was well-within grasp. This team has really high expectations. What we needed to do this year was be consistent. I think we’ve got that so far.

“This team has been on a journey. It was third time lucky getting up from intermediate. It took us a while to get up from Division 3 and then Division 2. We’ve had a lot of heartbreak, and tough games.

“You see that to get to the top, you have to have high standards. We learnt a few tough lessons over the years, and that’s why we’re at this point now. It’s built character.”

While Duggan wasn’t around for that 2015 hammering to the Rebels or the first of the back-to-back intermediate decider defeats, she’s experienced her fair share of hurt and heartbreak.

The 2019 All-Ireland loss to Tipperary jumps out as “one of the worst days of football for me,” she frowns, compounding that year’s Leinster final defeat to Wexford.

“It was just a heartbreaking match for all of us,” she recalls. “That day, I probably didn’t perform to my best, and I would have been quite harsh on myself. Thinking back, I was 17, and I’m not that much older now, but I’ve matured a lot since then in terms of being able to deal with those big days, nerves and pressure, and everything that comes with it.

“It was a tough game, but a massive learning curve. We definitely wouldn’t be at this point if we didn’t have those games.”

emma-duggan-celebrates-after-scoring-a-goal Celebrating a goal against Armagh. John McVitty / INPHO John McVitty / INPHO / INPHO

That maturity shines through with each and every word she utters.

Whether it be discussing how Meath’s standards are all player-driven — “When you realise you’re a step behind the top teams, if you want to put an end to this heartbreak, and finally get over the line on the big days, you have to take your game to the next level” — the strength and conditioning work done during lockdown, Eamon Murray and his backroom team, or her own journey to this point; it’s there.

Hailing from a big GAA family, Duggan’s father, Liam, played for Laois and Portlaoise, and has six senior club championship titles to his name with the latter and a Meath success with Dunboyne.

“He’s definitely a proud football man, and it runs through the family,” she beams. “My older brother plays football for Dunboyne, and my younger brother plays football and hurling for Dunboyne. He’s on the Meath U15 hurling squad at the minute.

“My Mam, she wouldn’t have been a footballer when she was younger, but she’s had no choice but to involve herself the last few years. Between all the games and training she’s gone to, she’s pretty much an expert at this stage. She’s the hidden gem behind it all, bringing me here, there, and everywhere.

“Dad always gets the mention because since I was a young girl, he would have been bringing me up to the pitch: right foot, left foot, kicking it over the bar. He’d probably be my biggest critic, bar myself.”

A fabulous striker of the ball, from play and frees, Duggan puts it down to all those hours of practice on the pitch, and the fact that her Dad hammered home the need for both feet.

“We’d kick 50 balls and come home. Even in games, if I miss a shot, I’m going to be up practicing that exact same shot. He’ll be up there with me. He’s my biggest critic, but he’ll be saying, ‘Oh, you did this well’. I trust his opinion, and I value it a lot.”

Having sat six out of seven Leaving Cert exams to make sure no stone was left unturned with predicted grades also on offer, her Sixth Year was certainly a challenging one.

Home-schooling and studying was balanced with football through the pandemic, but everyone got by, she assures. With Accounting and Finance in DCU down first on her CAO and other business courses after, she’s taking it all in her stride, knowing anything could happen.

Just like during the week when this weekend’s semi-final was moved from Tuam on Saturday to Croke Park on Sunday after the the men’s All-Ireland SFC semi-final between Tyrone and Kerry was postponed.

emma-duggan On free-taking duty in the 2020 All-Ireland final. Ryan Byrne / INPHO Ryan Byrne / INPHO / INPHO

Preparations haven’t been disrupted, bar the switch of one training day, though Duggan and her side will take that. “Any day you get to play in Croke Park, you’re not going to argue too much about that. It suits us fine. Croke Park is nice and big which we like. I think we’ll adapt well enough.”

Playing a stunning brand of counter-attacking football, with a blanket defence which catches opposition on the break, the Royals really showed their hand in the huge quarter-final win over Armagh.

To others, it may have been a surprise or an upset. But not to Duggan, her side, or those following their progress closely.

“Reading articles, it’s been like, ‘It was a shock win over Armagh’. The most important thing for us is that the people within the camp believe; players and management believed we could get to this point, believed we could get over Armagh.

“When the final whistle blew, there was probably relief and a lot of different emotions. That was the result we wanted, and anything else, we would have been disappointed.

“Bringing that result into training, everyone is absolutely buzzing. Against Cork, we are going to have to bring a little bit something extra again. We know that, but we are capable of that.”

Having lost to the Leesiders by just two points in the group stages, Duggan is ready to go toe-to-toe with the 11-time champions once again and continue this remarkable rise.

“That was first day out, there were possibly nerves. I don’t think we went at them as well as we could have,” she concludes. “We probably more reserved, and feared them on the break.

“We definitely didn’t perform like we know that we could have. What we need to bring Sunday is to just play our game. It’s got us to this point. We need to really go at them, and have no regrets.”

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