Meath’s incredible level of fitness, tactical nous and skill have taken the game to another degree
I played my first senior club game for St Eunan’s of Donegal in 1995 at the age of 12, made my inter-county debut at 15 and finished my playing career almost 20 years later in 2014, winning the Dublin championship with Na Fianna.
That particular group had been together for eight years, and the majority of us were approaching the end of our playing days with hamstrings, knees and resilience all hanging by a thread. We had won a few championships, our last in 2011, and lost the 2012 and 2013 finals. We could easily have walked away but an unspoken agreement was made to give it one last dance.
A great Cork man, Ray Dorney, stayed on as manager and a freshness was added to the coaching team in the form of Niall Williams, a well known and respected coach in both football and camogie circles. It was by no means a season littered with perfect performances, indeed it was glaringly underwhelming at times. On one particular occasion I remember going for the toss before a league match and the referee making polite conversation telling me that nobody would challenge Foxrock Cabinteely and asking if I had any plans to travel in summer.
Three months later we beat Foxrock Cabinteely in the final by two points, mainly because we trusted our management team. We knew the only focus for them and us was winning the championship, very little mattered in between in terms of results and performances.
Meath had a season littered with mixed performances. But their best by far was in last Sunday’s All-Ireland final. They raked up their highest score of the championship to date, 3-10, scoring more goals against Kerry than they had throughout the previous rounds combined. Their fitness levels were so superior to the opposition, that Kerry were literally legless within five minutes of the restart. This was because of the exertion required in the first half to stay in touch with their opponents. Kerry heads bobbed with exhaustion, similar to those of brave souls crossing the finish line on marathon day.
Meath’s incredible level of fitness was not the only factor in determining the result last Sunday. They had season’s best performances all over the pitch from their big name players. But more importantly, there were unlikely heroes who stepped up on a day when their leading scorers were off target. Niamh O’Sullivan chipped in with 1-2, her wonderful finishes and colourful celebrations for each score wouldn’t have looked out of place on a Premier League pitch. Emma Troy contributed 1-1 from centre-back, Aoibhín Cleary was phenomenal. Troy and Cleary’s composure on the ball, along with their driving runs, had the Kerry half-forward line on the backfoot unable to mount many attacks of their own.
From the throw-in Vikki Wall started with a purpose only seen in patches this season. She was literally unstoppable because she has added so much to her game in terms of her offloads, footwork and lack of predictability on the ball. Her most significant yet subtle contribution was over the space of three first-half minutes. Having been 1-2 down, Meath kept their composure and tagged on 1-1 of their own. They were trailing by a point with 13 minutes gone, when Wall converted two frees in quick succession from an identical position on the right hand side of the posts. Kerry saw a five-point lead evaporate in the same number of minutes, finding themselves one point in arrears. Had Wall not nailed those two very difficult kicks, the momentum Meath went on to build may not have gained traction as quickly as it did, while having the added benefit of breaking the Kerry spirit from which they would never recover.
Surprisingly it was a game littered with mistakes and a huge percentage of scores for both teams came from turnovers or unforced errors. Of Kerry’s final total of 1-7, 1-3 came directly from the Meath kick-out, uncharacteristically Monica McGuirk gifting the Kingdom with possession on numerous occasions. Emma Duggan was poor in terms of measuring her shots, however she more than compensated with her work-rate, linking play and tackling making her the catalyst of the vast majority of Meath attacks. Stacey Grimes missed frees for the first time this year, but her pass for O’Sullivan’s goal was a moment of genius.
Kerry made repetitive mistakes bringing the ball into the tackle, something they identified as planning to avoid in the build-up, but Meath drained them of alternative ideas, and energy, and they were left with no other option. Two out of the three Meath goals came from miskicks, Kelsey Nesbitt’s attempt for a point found its way to Emma Troy who superbly dispatched past Ciara Butler and in turn Stacey Grimes had an effort half blocked and the ball fell to Bridgetta Lynch who finished on her second attempt. All the faults and errors just added to the excitement and drama and made for brilliant entertainment. And for every Meath mistake, they made double the number of brilliant tackles, sequence of plays, passes and turnovers. When they had to inject pace they did so all over the pitch and just blew Kerry away on too many occasions forcing them into too many mistakes to mount a realistic challenge.
Both teams adopted a similar kick-out strategy, overloading on either side of the pitch in an attempt to beat the zonal press. The Kerry kick-out collapsed early on and this gave Meath a platform to mount consecutive attacks putting the defence under huge strain. While McGuirk didn’t have her best kicking game she still had the confidence to recover from early mistakes and held the ability to find a player in a condensed area under pressure. She had no hesitation in mixing it up with long and short passes, as she has done all season.
In contrast at the other end Ciara Butler did not possess the same accuracy and on too many occasions her kicks hung in the air giving the Meath players time to swarm the intended player before she even had attempted to gain possession.
In what was a military-like operation, Meath clearly sensed Kerry’s reluctance and lack of confidence to go short, depriving them of alternative outlets and options, trapping them inside their own 45 for long periods of the game. Credit to the Kerry defenders, Kaylee Cronin, Cáit Lynch, Emma Costello and in particular midfielder Lorraine Scanlon, their stand-out player on the day, as without their battling qualities until the very end the scoreline could have been worse.
It was obvious Kerry tried to adapt their game in certain ways to counteract the Meath defensive style. Their opening score from wing-back Ciara Murphy showed patience in the recycle. It would be the only time they would get joy from such practice and aside from some long-distance wonder scores from Síofra O’Shea, Paris McCarthy and Scanlon. along with frees from of Louise Ní Mhuircheartaigh, they struggled to penetrate the Meath fortress.
For the second successive game Kerry failed to score in the last 20 minutes. Against Mayo they had already cruised to victory. That game having taken on the pace of a challenge match did nothing to help the Kerry cause because in contrast, in their path to the final Meath had to fight until the bitter end to get over the line against Donegal and Galway and those experiences stood to them.
So common a feature in the men’s game and less prevalent in the women’s was Meath’s ability to lure Kerry down rabbit holes, swarm them in hunting packs and strip them of the ball time and time again. Their final pass and decision-making skills were other clear indications of how well coached a team they are. Judging by their patterns of play, direction of individual running and movement off the ball it is likely that there is a method of repetition to almost everything they do at training.
Eamonn Murray has been at the forefront of media coverage as his backroom team have quietly gone about their business. Strength and conditioning coach Eugene Eivers previously worked with the Donegal men, training the Dublin-based players during the glory years of Jim McGuinness. When asked in an interview how he could trust a guy so much to replicate the work he was doing in Donegal, McGuinness replied, “Well, I lived with him in Tralee for two years. So everyone I have in the set-up I really do trust them. That is important.”
Trainer and selector Paul Garrigan announced on Thursday that he would be stepping down from his coaching role after six years. “It’s been amazing, it really has. But the journey is over now. Hopefully I’ll have new challenges in the near future but not just right now. I need a rest.”
The management team as a whole deserve huge credit for changing the course of Meath football and taking a team from its lowest point to the pinnacle of the sport in such a short time.
All-Ireland final days are always special occasions, and 2022 lived up to previous years. I love the day not only for the football on offer but also because of the people you meet. There is always an eclectic gathering of people on finals day bringing with them a special atmosphere. I had planned to meet my closest friends, many of whom have young children so the days of late nights are long gone. They were on a strict timer, rushing home to relieve their babysitters.
After the game, I got a bit of abuse from Meath fans for my views and opinions that were interpreted as ‘always being against them’. Clearly they hadn’t listened to or read any of my commentary installing their team as favourites for back-to-back All-Ireland glory.
This year’s championship ebbed and flowed, was extremely predictable at times and less so on other occasions making fools out of us so-called ‘experts’. The LGFA and Meath saved their best until last.