LAST NOVEMBER, LOUTH ladies football manager Mícheál McKeown set a goal for his team: to play in the TG4 All-Ireland junior final in Croke Park.
On Sunday, they’ll do just that as they take on Limerick with the West County Hotel Cup and promotion to the intermediate grade on the line.
But the very man that set that goal, that aim for Louth won’t be there to witness it.
In early June, McKeown passed away at the age of 67. He took ill before Louth’s Leinster championship clash against Kilkenny and died in hospital two days later.
A cloud of sadness was cast over GAA and ladies football circles as well as further afield with tributes pouring in from far and wide for the much-loved character and highly-respected coach.
Football took a back seat for some time as the panel and management team pulled together to grieve and come to terms with the loss. But championship still had to be played. There was a Leinster final right around the corner.
Darren Bishop, a close family friend of McKeown’s, had been roped in to take a few training sessions prior to the untimely passing and the PE teacher was then approached to take the reins and drive on with the team.
“At the start I was a little bit unsure but after speaking with Micheál’s wife Mary, who I know very well, she asked would I continue on his legacy,” he tells The42.
“That’s what I’ve tried to do. I’ve come in and tried to continue it on. Thankfully we’ve gotten to the 16th September, where he wanted to get the team in the first place.”
An interesting move, but one he couldn’t turn down. Bishop knew he had to do it for Mícheál, to build on the great work he had done and to keep edging towards that goal to run out on the Croke Park turf.
“He was an absolute character,” he grins, his eyes glossing over slightly as the memories come flooding back. All fond, of course. It’s fair to say that McKeown meant a lot to anyone lucky enough to cross paths with him.
GAA | There's some awfully sad news to report this evening after the passing of @LouthLGFA Ladies manager Micheál McKeown. Micheál fell ill before Sunday's Leinster Junior Championship tie with Kilkenny and will be sadly missed by all. Thoughts with his family and friends. RIP. pic.twitter.com/zf2hj0BTGU— Gavin McLaughlin (@DundalkSport) June 5, 2018
“Anyone that met him, you’d have been left going, ‘Was that a true story he told me?’ He was a monkey like, he’d mess with you completely.
“I think what he brought back into Louth Ladies football was a bit of humour and a bit of enjoyment. Perhaps that’s what it was lacking and that seemed to really work with this group of girls. He got them together from a poor season last year to turn it around and get to a Division 4 final.
“That’s solely down to him and what he had done with them. He was an incredible man for what he’d done with Louth Ladies. The girls I’d say are very thankful for what he’s done.”
And of course, likewise, they’re very grateful for Bishop coming in and the leaps and bounds they’ve made since.
Controlling emotions and maintaining a positive atmosphere in the set-up was of optimum importance as the Wee county looked to do their talking on the field, and play in memory of their late manager.
“I tried to reign in the emotions of the girls a little bit. It was definitely very tough within the first couple of weeks,” Bishop continues.
“We went straight into a Leinster final. That was my first job: to win a Leinster final with them. They done incredibly well. From that day on, what I could see was the respect that they’d shown Mícheál was the same respect that they’d show me.
“I can’t question the commitment, the sacrifice, it’s been unbelievable for me. That’s what they would have done for Mícheál, I’m pleased that they’ve done that for me as well.”Source: The42.ie/YouTube
The highly-charged scenes at the final whistle of that Leinster final victory over Carlow said it all. The players had McKeown’s wife, Mary, right at the heart of all the celebrations as they rallied through the outpour of emotion together.
That remarkable bond has continued as she keeps in touch with the girls and is sure to lend her utmost support as they prepare to do battle with Limerick on Sunday.
“She’ll be the first woman here on the 16th September to cheer them on,” Bishop smiles.
“It’s brilliant for her as well, brilliant for her and Mícheál’s extended family to see that the work he put in, he’s in some way getting a reward for it by the girls getting here on the 16th September.
“I suppose it’s up to them to carry it through and hopefully get the wish that he wanted at the start of the year.”
After that successful Leinster campaign came the next block, the next challenge which was the group stages of the All-Ireland series. Three steps to get to an All-Ireland semi-final; wins over Antrim, Kilkenny and London followed.
Then it was 2017 All-Ireland finalists Derry in the last four, which turned out to be a pretty crazy game. With six minutes left on the clock, Louth were two points down.
Their full-back Michelle McMahon was involved in an accidental collision and sustained a head injury which led to a lengthy delay.
“Going to the changing rooms, we were there for an hour,” he recalls.
“I knew myself with the girls, there was definitely going to be a kick-back. You could see it in them, they were absolutely devastated with the way they performed. I didn’t have to tell them.
“They knew themselves and there had to be some sort of a kick-back. Within 30 seconds that happened. We got our goal, we held out with a point-win. Very tough on Derry but that’s sport, there has to be a winner and a loser like there will be on Sunday.”
The mood in the camp is upbeat and positive, training has been enjoyable with preparations in full flow. But it’s all about producing that performance on Sunday, the team doing themselves justice on the big stage.
There’s a nice blend of youth and experience, with captain Kate Flood one of few who contested junior finals in 2010, 2012 and 2015.
But this one, you could say, carries that little extra weight.
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