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'I still think I'm in a dream. Meath football was in a low, low place a few years ago'

Niamh O’Sullivan was outstanding as the Royals won their first All-Ireland senior crown and dethroned Dublin.

Winner, winner: Niamh O'Sullivan.
Winner, winner: Niamh O'Sullivan.
Image: Bryan Keane/INPHO

“THIS GIRL HERE ran her legs into the ground,” Meath manager Eamonn Murray beamed with a nod to Niamh O’Sullivan sitting on his right-hand side.

The Royals had just won their first All-Ireland senior championship crown, and completed the most fairytale of stories and remarkable of rises. In doing so, they ripped the script to shreds, shattered the odds, and ended Dublin’s Drive for Five.

From hammerings and demolitions at senior level — the most infamous of those a 40-point defeat to Cork in 2015, which was live on TG4, while there was an 18-point reversal at the hands of Dublin a year later — relegation and a massive rebuilding job, to beating both powerhouses en route to the very top of the game in 2021.

And now, for the first time since 2004, the Brendan Martin Cup will winter somewhere that’s not Cork or Dublin.

Crowned intermediate champions last December, this was Meath’s first year in the top-flight, and their first senior final appearance. But they showed no such sign of that, taking the game by the scruff of the neck and doing something Dublin had done for so long: dominating.

They brought ultra-intensity and sheer quality from the get-go at Croke Park; their defensive, and then, counter-attacking system working a treat once again as the four-in-a-row champions failed to really crack the code and unlock the fairytale senior newcomers.

Vikki Wall was at the heart of everything Meath did, always the link player and the one pulling the strings. Dublin simply couldn’t handle her; big guns Sinéad Goldrick and Lauren Magee both struggling to get to grips with the Dunboyne ace, who was named Player of the Match.

Her 19-year-old clubmate Emma Duggan, just two days after collecting her Leaving Cert results, lit up HQ with a sizzling 1-2. Her early, lobbed goal sent Meath on her way, with two inspirational points in either half keeping momentum with her side.

And O’Sullivan played a similar role before the posts, swinging over three top-drawer efforts across an industrious afternoon. A classy, skillful and athletic forward with a sublime left boot, the Dunshauglin Royal Gaels star put on an exhibition.

“The trusty left leg was working,” she grinned afterwards. “I just happened to be in the right place at the right time. It doesn’t matter who scores.”

That’s the thing with this Meath team: they play for each other, full of belief, hunger and confidence.

This was a complete team performance, each and every one of their defensive players putting in a colossal shift as they turned Dublin over and retained possession. Aoibhín Cleary, Emma Troy — who also scored 0-2 — and Máire O’Shaughnessy were three in particular to stand out in that department.

niamh-and-fia-osullivan-and-mia-and-megan-thynne Meath's Niamh and Fia O’Sullivan and Mia and Megan Thynne celebrating. Source: Bryan Keane/INPHO

“The toughest game I’ve ever played in, definitely,” O’Sullivan noted. “We knew coming down today the pace would be a lot quicker, but the girls gave it everything, the girls coming off the bench.

“We knew it was always going to be a physical battle against Dublin. We came into this game playing our own game. We focused on ourselves. And we really came out and performed.”

What about that feeling as the final whistle sounded and Croke Park erupted, this fairytale story hitting stratospheric levels?

“I still think I’m in a dream. Absolutely fantastic. The crowd was just amazing. Got behind us at crucial times in the game, when Dublin nearly got in for a goal chance and we won the ball and the absolute roar just lifted us.

“Dublin got within two points at the end but the crowd just really got behind us. It is nice to see the green and gold filling Croke Park again. Just incredible.”

And for O’Sullivan herself, who was with this Meath team through rock-bottom and those soul-destroying days, before taking some time away to go travelling and then returning to lead the charge out of the intermediate ranks?

“It’s special,” the 31-year-old noted, as she tried to sum it all up. “It’s definitely up there as being the biggest achievement in my career, and I’m indebted to the girls as well.

“Meath football was in a low, low place a few years ago, and we suffered two defeats in-a-row in the intermediate finals, so to come back just shows you the character of this team.

“Eamonn and the management team he has brought in, it’s just a professional set-up and you can see there we all bought in, we were all drilled into our set-ups, even the subs they all know their roles and it really showed out there today.”

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niamh-osullivan O'Sullivan on the ball. Source: Bryan Keane/INPHO

Murray, given a deserved break from his own media duties as former captain O’Sullivan said her bit, chipped in again at that point.

“There are no egos out there on the field with this bunch, they are all equal – that’s the way we have it,” he stressed. “They work for each other like nothing else.

“You see them at training — Niamh probably warming up with a different player every night, they are that closely knit bunch, and that is what won it through for us really today.

“They are a very special bunch to work with, and that is the way the coaches have them, and I must thank the coaches so much – Paul, Paddy, Shane, Mark and Eugene – they wouldn’t leave a stone unturned. Every detail down to the very last little thing, class. It’s very easy for me.”

Murray also hailed the “huge belief” in the squad; this young teams’ cool heads never getting too carried away despite the added spotlight.

“I thought there was a bit of hype around Trim this morning, I wasn’t that happy about it, there were a lot of people around, getting photos and stuff off them, and I wondered was that going to affect them. Banners on the way up.

“But then in the dressing room I said, ‘This team is ready’ because they were so calm — no shouting, no roaring, nice and calm, very focused. The fitness levels they have is second to none.”

Summed up by O’Sullivan, who did indeed run herself into the ground.

Screenshot 2020-11-24 at 9.04.07 AM

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Emma Duffy

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