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What Meath's magical All-Ireland win has done for the game in the county

In their first year back in the senior ranks, the Royals lifted the Brendan Martin Cup for the first time and ended Dublin’s Drive for Five.

Meath celebrate their All-Ireland win at Hill 16.
Meath celebrate their All-Ireland win at Hill 16.
Image: Bryan Keane/INPHO

“I DON’T THINK we just had an effect on Meath, I think we had an effect all over Ireland.” The words of Monica McGuirk earlier this week.

The Royals’ goalkeeper spoke at length about the knock-on impact of their magical, maiden All-Ireland win across the country, and how it’s brought the game of ladies football to “another level”.

Their first year back in the senior ranks, the denial of the perfect Dublin Drive For Five and end of the Cork-Dublin duopoly, Meath’s rise from the doldrums and the entire backstory that’s so well documented at this stage. The stuff of dreams doesn’t even cut it.

It’s something that was referenced by so many over and over at the Tuesday’s league launch, having been the whole talk far and wide since that September Glory Day.

But what about in Meath alone? What has it done for the game in the county, from playing numbers to general interest? Is the legacy evident?

“I do think the participation levels have rose in county Meath,” McGuirk tells The42, ahead of their Division 1 league opener against Cork this afternoon.

“You walk down the street and you see girls coming over wanting to take a photo with you or sign something, and it’s just like, ‘What’s going on here?!’

“We played our club championship finals in Páirc Tailteann as a double-header with the men, and the women’s game had just as many supporters as the men’s game did.

We’re obviously in Páirc Tailteann again this Saturday – friends of mine, their kids want to go and see us playing. I do think it absolutely has progressed [the game in the county]. It’s little girls coming up to you saying, ‘I want to play for Meath,’ which is something that you would never had.”

These are the stories you never get sick of hearing, the anecdotes which so often paint the best picture.

But stats and numbers don’t lie.

And Meath LGFA PRO Fearghal Harney happily backs up McGuirk’s own insight and opinion with the facts and figures.

The ever-increasing registration numbers alone tell you all you need to know.

“I’d say the big interest actually came after the intermediate championship final, when we won it in 2020,” Harney, who also served as chairman in recent times, explains.

“The way the registration works in the LGFA, it was July/August time. Registration of July/August of 2020 was in and around the 6000-mark in Meath. When the girls won the All-Ireland [intermediate title], it went up 30%. We now have 8500-9000 registered members. That’s from that and then the National League Division 2 final, which then led into registration for 21/22. It’s just shy of 9000 now, which is huge for us.

We expect hopefully at least another 20% when it comes around again this year, I think it’s back to the end of June again. We’re hoping to get another 20% on top of last year, which would bring us up maybe around the 11,000 mark, which would be nice.”

While presenting the facts and figures, Harney offers plenty of insight and anecdotes of his own.

An Armagh native and former inter-county footballer with the Orchard county, he’s had a front-row seat to the growth of ladies football in recent years.

“The game has become so much more a commodity as well, with Lidl coming on board and spending €10 million over 10 years. You’ve got AIG as the insurance partner, all this helps. All that extra media helps.

“I took over as chairperson of the county in 2016, when we were at our lowest ebb. Nobody wanted it, and me, being a typical Armagh man said, ‘I’ll try it’. Even then, we were 3500 members and I think we had 30 clubs at that stage. Now we’re up at 42 clubs.

“We have a Master Fixtures Plan done for club football, and even with our adult [competitions] we’re up at a record 63 teams. We have nine divisions this year, and that’s just the adult. We mentioned the other night at one of the meetings for fixtures, I think it’s U15 this year, we have 78 teams. It brings its own problems, it’s crazy but it’s great.”

meath-celebrate-with-the-brendan-martin-cup Meath celebrate. Source: Laszlo Geczo/INPHO

Crazy but great; also the perfect way to sum up 2021 for Meath ladies football. Their success along the road to lifting the Brendan Martin Cup saw general interest sky-rocket. 

From fans taking over Hill 16 to Kepak jerseys selling out – evoking fond memories for many – to Vikki Wall, Emma Duggan et al establishing themselves as household names.

Then there have been companies offering backing and sponsorship, a Late Late Show appearance, and Dunboyne’s impressive run to Leinster senior glory and the All-Ireland series adding to it all.

“The Dunboyne girls had a huge season, getting to the All-Ireland semi-final and everything,” 2019 and 2021 All-Star McGuirk beams.

“They’re obviously only back in with us now in the last couple of weeks as well. It’s been absolutely brilliant for them, and brilliant for the county and for the clubs.”

For Harney, it’s difficult to sum it all up. A trip down memory lane with former player and stand-in manager Jenny Rispin, which will appear in an article in today’s programme, helped.

Obviously getting to the pinnacle was a major achievement for us, but to actually win it? I was back there in the day when Jenny Rispin took the team in 2016, and to actually see where we’ve come in such a short period of time, it’s just been phenomenal.

“I sat down with her last week and asked her the question, ‘What has been the difference since that fateful day, you played Cork in 2015 [the 40-point hammering] and then you took on to the National League in 2016 before the new management came in?’

“I said, ‘What is the difference?’ because she’s still involved. And she says, ‘Consistency.’ It’s not the consistency of the players just, it’s the consistency of the county board and the messages coming across. It’s the consistency of the management; Eamonn [Murray] and Paul [Garrigan[ and the guys, since they came in in April 2017.

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"It's that consistency. And now, everybody - whether it be a player, supporter or county board delegate and member - has something to aim for. That's been the big thing going forward this past number of years, which has led to this."

So here they are, All-Ireland senior champions, tasked with the big challenge of defending their crown. It all begins again in Navan this afternoon, with the team "hoping for a big crowd and loads of support," according to McGuirk.

2022-lidl-ladies-national-football-leagues-launch McGuirk at the launch of the 2022 Lidl Ladies National Football Leagues at the Lidl Regional Distribution Centre in Newbridge. Source: Brendan Moran/SPORTSFILE

While ticket sales have been underway, Harney admits that 1000 people would be a big crowd, reluctant to say too much given the fact that 200-300 would have been so in previous years of the National League.

“I think people are probably looking at the Dublin game, because obviously we’re neighbours and everything else with the All-Ireland final,” he adds, “but this Cork game, at the minute, it’s going to be the biggest game that Meath Ladies have ever had on home soil, ever.

“It’s the first round of the National League Division  1 and it’s against the team that we got out of jail against in August last year. It’s a great test for them, the girls are under no illusions, it’s going to be tough, physical exciting game of football.

“Just talking to the girls over the past couple of weeks, they’re under no illusions and just because they’re All-Ireland champions doesn’t mean they’re entitled to go out against Cork and Dublin and Waterford and win games. It’s not going to happen like that, it’s down to the hard work that they put in.

“They did it last year, they seen the benefits of it. They know they have to step it up again now, because now instead of being the hunting, they are the hunted.

“There’s exciting times ahead.”

And an ever-lasting legacy in place too, with ladies football thriving on the Banks of the Boyne.

- Meath v Cork, 1.30pm, Páirc Tailteann; available to live-stream on the LGFA portal >

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Emma Duffy

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