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Royal fairytale - The day of days for Meath ladies football

The Green and Gold took Croke Park by storm to land a first-ever All-Ireland senior title after a remarkable journey.

‘MEATH, MEATH, MEATH’

Walking up Jones’ Road towards Croke Park, a group of excited young fans provided the soundtrack, and set the tone for the day.

Decked out in green and gold, with flags, foghorns and whistles, they captured – and pretty much demanded – the attention of all they walked past with their chants and cheers.

‘Who’s going to win? Meath.’

‘Who’s going to lose? Dublin.’

Not many thought it at the time, but those young girls and boys from the banks of the Boyne were dead right.

aoibhin-cleary-celebrates-after-the-game-orlagh-lally Aoibhín Cleary and Orlagh Lally celebrate. Source: Laszlo Geczo/INPHO

You know the story by now: Mick Bohan’s all-conquering Sky Blues were going for the perfect five-in-a-row, fairytale senior newcomers and debut finalists Meath daring to dream of a first-ever All-Ireland title at this level.

David versus Golliath stuff.

A rag to riches tale, but certainly not an overnight success story, this was the Royals’ first year back in the senior ranks. The dark days of 2015 and 2016 have been well-documented at this stage; losses week after week in the top-flight, rock-bottom a 40-hammering at the hands of Cork. That one was live on TG4, and Meath scored just three points.

Before Sunday, the last time they had played Dublin was in the 2016 Leinster championship. An 18-point reversal was the outcome in Summerhill.

And it was rather fitting that it was Cork and Dublin they gunned down in their final two assignments this year; the two counties that had dominated the landscape since 2005, sharing every single Brendan Martin Cup title since Galway last won 17 years ago.

Their story certainly sends out a message of hope to others; to all teams at all levels across the length and breadth of the country.

dublin-v-meath-tg4-all-ireland-ladies-senior-football-championship-final Shauna Ennis and Emma Duggan celebrate. Source: Eóin Noonan/SPORTSFILE

Meath requested relegation to the intermediate ranks as the curtain came down on ’16. Many were unhappy with the decision; a young Vikki Wall, for one. But hindsight is a great thing, and the rebuild was undoubtedly the best thing for Meath ladies football.

In 2017, they reached the second-tier intermediate semi-final, only to fall to eventual champions Tipperary. In 2018 and 2019, they were beaten at the final hurdle in, first by Tyrone, and then by Tipp once again, who had yo-yo’d up and down, like so many others do.

Third time’s a charm, they made no mistake in last December’s decider as they saw off Westmeath and achieved promotion back to the senior ranks.

Nine months later, they defied all the odds, expectations and everything in between to take the game’s biggest prize after a simply stunning first year at the top table.

For most, a first year up a tier would mean simply preserving their status and doing everything in their power not to be relegated. Not for Meath. As people were saying, they didn’t just rip up the script, they shredded it to bits and pieces and scattered it across the hallowed turf of Croke Park.

dublin-v-meath-tg4-all-ireland-ladies-senior-football-championship-final Meath players celebrate with fans on Hill 16. Source: Piaras Ó Mídheach/SPORTSFILE

That excited group of young boys and girls, and indeed, many filtering into HQ in those famous Kepak jerseys wouldn’t have been aware of this team’s trials, tribulations and gut-wrenching lows a few short years back. Up until recent weeks, they probably didn’t even know their names.

“When I came into the panel first there was no interest in Meath ladies football,” as Wall said afterwards. “It was really at a terrible stage.”

Last week, manager Eamonn Murray spoke about begging girls to play. Absolutely zero convincing will be needed going forward, this monumental win following on from plenty of underage success.

An iconic picture posted by the Ladies Gaelic Football Association [LGFA] of young Meath fan, Norah Neeson, sums up the impact this amazing team has had, and will have for many years to come.

Hill 16 – open for the first time on All-Ireland ladies football finals day – was full of young Meath men in jerseys, flags and headbands, supporting their female counterparts. Gender went out the window, as it should. It was all about representing the county.

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The amount of people wearing the Meath ladies jersey, rather than the men’s, was also particularly striking. In fact, Jacksy Kiernan’s shop in Navan sold out of them.

From the moment Wall won throw-in and stormed at the Dublin defence to the sound of the final hooter, they shouted their team all the way. They ooh‘d and aah‘d; they cheered and protested; they smiled, they laughed, and they cried.

Oh, they cried.

As Meath’s fairytale story hit stratospheric levels at the end of the 60 minutes, emotions did too. Players embraced on the pitch, fans did so off it and the King of Meath football, Sean Boylan, congratulated its newly-crowned queens.

Jenny Rispin, a former player and coach who soldiered for so long through those awful lows, went wild in the press box, and the joy across Shauna Ennis’ face as she lifted the silverware epitomised the feeling of a county. 

A county that has enjoyed incredible Gaelic games success in recent weeks.

“Nobody believed that we could do it today, but we believed, and now, we’re going home with the Brendan Martin Cup,” she began.

Afterwards, Glory Days rang out around the stadium, and indeed, back they were.

The most perfect of endings to a truly special story.

But that’s just one part. The next chapter and the rest of the book is still unwritten.

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About the author:

Emma Duffy

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