‘With five minutes to go, I was looking up at the clock like, ‘Get me out of here”
MEATH DID IT, why can’t we? Something that’s likely been said over and over in every corner of the country since the Royals’ magical, maiden All-Ireland senior triumph.
“Not that we’re worried, but we’re more conscious of the challenge this year than last year,” All-Star goalkeeper Monica McGuirk tells The42.
It’s something every player in attendance at yesterday’s Lidl Ladies National Football League launch referenced. And rightly so.
You know the bones of the story by now: A first Brendan Martin Cup lift in their first year back in the senior ranks. Dublin’s Drive for Five – and the perfect one at that, having had a 100% championship record up to that point – brought to a shuddering halt in Croke Park. The most dramatic of extra-time semi-final wins over fellow heavyweights Cork, and the breaking of the Cork-Dublin domination of every All-Ireland crown since 2005.
And that’s without mentioning everything that came before the 2021 championship. The years spent in the doldrums shipping heavy defeats, the back-to-back intermediate final losses, and their rise through the league ranks to seal a return to Division 1.
“It’s after bringing women’s football to another new level,” McGuirk beams.
“You had girls and players all over the country texting you congratulating you. I think it’s gonna drive on other teams to realise that if you put your mind to something, you can achieve it.
“I don’t know if it’s ever been done; an intermediate team winning an intermediate and going straight on and winning a senior. I don’t know, but it’s just something that dreams are made.”
(The closest parallel in the history of ladies football is Armagh winning junior title in 2005, and contesting the 2006 All-Ireland senior final against Cork.)
Make no mistake about it, 2021 has been parked. That Glory Day is in the rear-view mirror, and McGuirk and Meath are well aware that they have a target on their back now.
A line has certainly been drawn in the sand inside the bubble, but outside it, it remains a story which captured the imagination, and will be revisited time and time again forevermore.
And so when the obvious ‘Talk to me about last year’ is dropped, a big smile breaks across McGuirk’s face.
The 2019 and 2021 All-Star shot-stopper begins by echoing the words of her team-mates through the winter in explaining how far The Holy Grail was off their radar.
McGuirk at the launch of the 2022 Lidl Ladies National Football Leagues at the Lidl Regional Distribution Centre in Newbridge.
Source: Brendan Moran/SPORTSFILE
“We were senior football and Division Two, and our main focus was staying up in Division Two and competing with the best in the championship. They were our two goals at the start of the year. To go on and win the Division Two was just absolutely fantastic.
“It was only through the league, it was announced [the final] was going to be in Croke Park, which was major as well. We had obviously played a couple of months previous to that in the All-Ireland final and then to be going back to Croke Park for another final was amazing. Us playing Kerry that day, we were obviously going in knowing Kerry was a very tough team,. We put in the performance and and thankfully came out with the win.
“That was the first kind of goal achievement of the year, we weren’t expecting that of ourselves because we knew we had just come from Division Three, and it was our first time in Division Two so that was a huge achievement in itself last year. And then obviously it turned to the championship, and it just was a whirlwind couple of months.
We didn’t have in our minds: ‘We’re getting to an All-Ireland final.’ That wasn’t our mindset. Our mindset was, ‘Okay, we take one game at a time, and we just go from there.’”
The Duleek-Bellewstown star gathers herself for a moment, before continuing. “I think the main thing for us was we didn’t fear anybody. We didn’t fear the Armaghs, we didn’t fear the Corks.
“We played Cork in the first round and we lost to them. I always believe things happen for a reason. Although we would have loved to have won, I knew we had it in us to beat them.”
A stunning seven-point All-Ireland quarter-final win over Armagh made everyone else take notice, to say the very least. The reward? A last-four battle with Cork in Croke Park.
Not many would have backed Meath against the 11-time champions at that stage of the competition, but that didn’t matter. Even fewer would have with five minutes to go; the Rebels seven points up, with the game all but put to bed.
But two goals in the last minute forced extra-time, as a spectacular collapse ensued and Eamonn Murray’s side went on to reach their first-ever All-Ireland senior final.
“We knew ourselves, we didn’t play well in the semi-final, but we had that never give up attitude,” McGuirk, previously a goalkeeper with Peamount United and UCD Waves in the Women’s National League, reflects.
I know myself personally with five minutes to go, they had got the two goals and I was looking up at the clock like, ‘Get me out of here’. That was my mentality, I was ready [to go home]. Thankfully the girls up front weren’t,
“I think the main thing for us that day was the impact the subs had. We had a lot of subs come on, and they finished that game off for us. Only for those subs, I don’t think we would have got into an All-Ireland final.
“The likes of Emma White there, she was the one that got the penalty. Stacey [Grimes] slotted it home and then you had the likes of Niamh [Gallogly] and Megan [Thynne], all those girls were the ones to finish the game for us. Obviously then to go on and win it by two points. It was just…
“I remember going over to my family and they’d be like, ‘Thanks for the heart attack!’ My sister, they were going away for the weekend and she was like, ‘We were going with five minutes to go.’ Only for we got the penalty — they were like, ‘We’ll wait for the penalty’.”
Celebrations at Hill 16 after the All-Ireland final win.
Source: Bryan Keane/INPHO
Thankfully for the McGuirk family, the decider victory over Dublin was much more straightforward.
Against all odds and written off in most quarters, Meath grabbed the game by the scruff of the neck from the get-go, and did to Dublin what they had done to so many teams for so long.
They controlled and commanded the whole game, right from the moment Vikki Wall won the throw-in and surged right through the heart of the Sky Blues’ defence, to the fairytale final whistle.
“We knew in ourselves that if we put in a performance that we know we’re capable of, we could beat Dublin. I do think the 15-minute blocks helped us to reset every time. Some people are in favour of the water breaks and some aren’t, but I think it kind of helps us because it gives us some time to reset and go again.
And that’s how we took that game — 15 by 15. We didn’t think far ahead beyond the full time whistle obviously. I don’t know if people realise; we were ahead for the whole game. Dublin never went ahead, we were in control. It was there for us to lose it, d’you know what I mean?
“But it was probably nearly close to perfection in terms of our tactics and how we played. One to 15 and the subs to come on played probably their best game they had all season and it just gelled on that day in which we were very fortunate.”
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“Two sensational games that you look back and be like, ‘Wow, did that really happen?’ Sometimes you do pinch yourself to realise, ‘Okay you actually did win an All-Ireland,’” McGuirk adds with a smile.
“To win it in the way we did — obviously Dublin were going for five-in-a-row, and we hadn’t played Dublin. There was only so much another analysing and watching we could do, when we actually hadn’t played them it was quite difficult. But we knew going in we had nothing to lose.
“I think a lot of people thought we were just lucky to get there, but we had tough competition. We had to beat off Armagh, we have to beat Cork and then obviously we went on and bet Dublin. It’s been a whirlwind year, I have to say, but I wouldn’t have changed it for a minute.”
On the ball during the final.
Source: Laszlo Geczo/INPHO
And now onto the next. The group is “more or less the same,” with a few new additions fighting for spots on the panel and one or two, including clubmate Kate Byrne, departing.
The sequel opens this weekend, with Páirc Tailteann in Navan hosting their Division 1 opener against — you guessed it, Cork.
“We’re all really looking forward to Saturday, and the challenge Cork’s going to throw at us because it’s not going to be an easy one. Our group in itself is quite tough – you’ve got Dublin, Cork and Waterford. It’s gonna be tough to get out of that group.
“Bear in mind, that could be one of the three top teams in Dublin, Meath and Cork not getting to a semi-final. It’s gonna be very difficult, but it’s something that we’re all looking forward to.”
The Leesiders, likewise. With revenge on their mind, and one hell of a kick expected under the watchful eye of new manager Shane Ronayne.
“We’re not under any illusion that it’s going to be an easy battle,” McGuirk stresses. “You want to be playing the best in the country.
“We’ve got to a stage where we’ve won an All-Ireland, we want to be playing the Dublins, the Corks, all of them. We’re looking forward to it, but we’re under no illusion.”
As everyone else has been saying; Meath did it, why can’t we?
But what about for Meath; we did it before, why can’t we do it again?