The green shoots were there, not that anybody was particularly looking for them. Or certainly nobody beyond a small band of devotees. Mostly, the Meath women’s footballers were an afterthought. Even among their own people.
In 2015, Meath faced Cork in an All-Ireland SFC qualifier and lost by 40 points. They weren’t always an afterthought. No, on some occasions they were a bit of an embarrassment.
One evening during those chaotic years the Meath seniors played a challenge match against their minor counterparts in Dunganny. The grown-ups lost. All seemed utterly broken.
Unless you flipped your interpretation – the kids won. The future doesn’t have to be the same as the present. Perceptions. Green shoots.
In July 2016 the Meath minors beat Roscommon to win the All-Ireland MFC B final. Eamonn Murray was the manager of a team that included Vikki Wall, Megan Thynne, Kelsey Nesbitt and Aoibhín Cleary.
It was almost exactly one year on from that dark day on which the seniors lost 7-22 to 0-3 against Cork. A month before that qualifier against the Rebels, Diane O’Hora had stepped down as senior manager. The Mayo great was appointed Meath manager in October 2014 but she found a broken county.
“Things were bad at the time,” recalls O’Hora. “You were lucky if you had 15 at training sometimes. There was just no focus on the county being a flagship team. Club games were fixed for the same weekend as county games.
“I remember after the final whistle of one game a player literally running off the pitch to get in a car to go play a club championship match.”
It was one of several issues O’Hora encountered. After losing to Westmeath in the 2015 Leinster SFC, she’d had enough, resigned and released a statement that didn’t spare the county board, outlining “disrespectful treatment” of players and insisting “something must change”.
O’Hora added: “Having asked the county board for their 3/5 year strategic plan I’m still shocked to have not received it. Where, without leadership, is the county going?”
It was a fork in the road moment for Meath women’s football.
“The talent was there so when I weighed it up, I wasn’t concerned about putting my head on the chopping block because I felt it would ultimately be for the benefit of the players,” says O’Hora.
Her departure set in motion a train of events that ultimately brought about change at management and administrative level.
That December, Caroline Flattery stepped down as chairperson. But Meath couldn’t find a replacement. Finally, in January, a couple of EGMs later, Fearghal Harney agreed to take it on. But only because nobody else wanted it. He had applied to become manager of the footballers, not chairperson of the board.
“The situation had become quite serious for the girls that night,” recalls Harney.
Due to the leadership vacuum the meeting was chaired by Leinster Council. The following weekend Meath were due to open their League campaign against Sligo. Jenny Rispin, one of the steadfast heroes throughout the upheaval, had agreed to manage the team for that match.
“But it was said to us that night [that] if we didn’t pick a chairperson the game wouldn’t go ahead and we’d get fined,” recalls Harney.
Harney scanned the room. Tumbleweed. How had Meath ended up here? 40-point hammerings, departing managers criticising the board, no chairperson. They were a ghost ship, drifting.
“So, I said, ‘I’ll do it, I know nothing about it, but I’ll give it a go.’ At least that meant they could play Sligo.” Just like that, Harney had become an accidental chairman.
Meath beat Sligo and then Eoin Hennessy was appointed manager. But another difficult 12 months followed, including relegation to Division Three. Meath regraded to the intermediate championship for 2017. Just before the end of the 2017 league, Hennessy quit.
Harney called Murray.
“I was the man Eamonn kept saying no to,” smiles Harney. “I literally had to beg him a few times to put himself forward. We felt he was the right fit, he had managed a lot of the players at underage, including that All-Ireland minor B in 2016.”
Fergal Lynch was a selector with Murray in that 2016 minor set-up. In 2019 Lynch then fronted a management team that guided Meath to a first Leinster minor A championship in 17 years. That side included Emma Duggan, Orlagh Lally and Mary Kate Lynch. Meath were about to emerge from the shadows.
“Those two groups coming along within a few years of each other, they were a golden generation,” says Lynch.
And Murray was Mr Sheen.
“He’s a great communicator, he’d make sure everybody was happy and the environment was good. And he always surrounded himself with good coaches, he never did any of the coaching.
“Eamonn never put down a cone in his life, but he always picked them up after the drills.”
And then it all just kind of took off.
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But it has not just been a football revolution. In many ways it has been an uprising of an entire county, a reawakening, a county rediscovering its soul – from bullheaded aggression and skill on the field to the powerful iconography associated with the return of a nostalgic jersey sponsor.
In January 2020 it was announced Kepak would sponsor the Meath women’s football team.
The Kepak sponsorship of Sean Boylan’s Meath men’s teams is one of the most famous in the history of Gaelic games. When Meath were giants.
Kepak stopped sponsoring Meath in 2005. So when it returned across the front of the women’s jersey in 2020, it felt like something deeper came back with it.
Harney then addressed the mishmash of kit deals that saw the various Meath teams all wearing different jerseys. There was no uniformity.
“Your brand is essential,” says Harney. “We had to have one jersey covering all our teams.”
They went with Masita, a Meath company. Little things. Nothing bigger.
They didn’t just build a football team, along the way they rebuilt the damaged spirit of their people. Reminded them of who they were. And still are.
Lynch is also sports editor of The Meath Chronicle. When Meath won the All-Ireland junior final in 1994, the report was squeezed into the bottom corner of a page. An afterthought. These days the team get supplements.
Wall has become the most recognisable player in the game. Emma Duggan isn’t far behind.
Harney’s daughter was in Lanzarote during the recent midterm break.
“She came back telling us about the amount of teenage boys she seen wearing the Kepak ladies’ jersey, I had a little smile at that because you just couldn’t have imagined it a few years ago,” says Harney.
“There has been cultural shift in the county.”
O’Hora has watched Meath become the juggernaut she always believed they could be. In the final few lines of her 2015 statement, she suggested better days were ahead, but on the road to Damascus some would have to fall.
She stated: “I will take special interest in them all in the hope that they make their dreams come true and represent their county in Croke Park one day. I believe it will happen.”
The level of achievement has been staggering.
The players were presented with their haul of 2022 medals in Trim last Friday night. In many ways it felt like a tidy coda.
[ Meath overpower Kerry to retain All-Ireland crown ]
Murray has stepped down as manager and number of players will be unavailable next season because of injury and travel, and possibly AFL commitments.
Having spent five years as chairman, Harney finished up in the role in January 2021. Colm McManus has carried the baton forward since, with Harney alongside him as PRO.
Both men have heard the narrative doing the rounds, the one that suggests Meath have peaked and with the band now breaking up, the good times are over. But it’s a storyline they aren’t buying.
New manager Davy Nelson has brought in 12 new players.
“I actually feel we’ll be okay next year,” says Harney.
In any journey there will be arrivals and departures. Some heavier than others. The Meath Gaelic games community gathered in mourning last week for the funeral of Maria Kealy, a name synonymous with women’s football in the county. She was just 38.
Maria captained Meath to an All-Ireland under-16 title as a player. And she was alongside Lynch and Murray as part of the management team that won the 2019 Leinster minor title. For Maria, Meath women’s football was never an afterthought. She always believed these days would come.
At the funeral, football talk was never far from anybody’s lips.
“Nobody could understand how Vikki Wall didn’t get an All Star,” says Lynch. “Imagine not giving David Clifford an All Star this year, that’s what it was like.”
“Some people laugh when you say Meath changed the face of the game, but it’s the reality in a way because that strong defence and swift counter-attacking style, a lot of counties are employing those tactics now.
“I’d expect Meath to be competitive next year, it won’t be a case of them fading away. They have rekindled that Meath spirit, that never-say-die attitude.”
Those green shoots, they have given a county back its identity.
And for that they are now both adored and protected by their people.
Timeline of Success
2019 – Lost All-Ireland intermediate final; Division Three League winners
2020 – All-Ireland intermediate champions
2021 – Division Two League winners; All-Ireland senior champions
2022 – Division One League winners; All-Ireland senior champions