If you were to ask me five years ago if I had ever seen a women’s football team capture the imagination of the general public, I might have said no. Throughout my childhood and early teens I watched the Cork football team win about 72 All Ireland titles (it may have “just” been the 11) and barely heard a peep about it in my local community and broader friend group. Sometimes, if we were lucky, the Brendan Martin Cup might visit our school and it came and went, as did our interest until the following year.
Flash forward a decade later and – surprise, surprise – we have a team that has cut through. Every time I go to a company or a club to do a talk, when they ask me how the writing is going they always want to know more about Meath.
As a Cork person it’s a bitter pill to swallow. But as a women in sports aficionado, it’s music to my ears. People want to know about Vikki Wall or Emma Duggan and young girls ask what they are really like. Don’t worry, girls. I usually say you’re sound enough!
And then the general interest. When Eamonn Murray, then Meath manager, told the world he doesn’t care much for AFLW as Wall announced she was going out to play in Australia people genuinely loved the drama. When Murray introduced a counter-attacking style of football, aggressively defending the opposition and cutely turning them over, everyone became interested in ladies football tactics. Purists, like all purists, may not have liked it but dealt with it. Football fans were genuinely intrigued that there was a new style of play. At the end of the day, ladies football is the more honest of the codes.
Of course, with Meath and the rise in Irish athletes taking up AFLW, so did the demands on strength and conditioning. Meath aren’t a dirty team but are physically stronger than other sides and it shows. Against Cork in the 2021 All Ireland semi-final, their fitness came to the fore extra time. Meath had the pep in their step, Mr Momentum on the side, and that was mainly down to the fact they were able to turn Cork over on their own 45 and transition at pace, leaving the opposition totally exposed.
In last year’s All-Ireland final they didn’t wilt under Kerry’s initial pressure in the first 15 minutes. They held their own, eventually grinding down Kerry and absorbing every attack by meeting them on the 45. They turned Kerry over at a ferocious rate, kept Louise Ni Mhuircheartaigh well out of the scoring zone and ensured Síofra O’Shea couldn’t conduct the orchestra in front of her. Eventually, Meath got on top and romped home.
So, while teams try to match Meath’s physicality and some try to overcome it, it leaves ladies football in an incredible bind. The tackling – or no physicality – rule isn’t fit for purpose and hasn’t been for some time. Dublin could get away with it slightly throughout their reign of terror because it wasn’t a team effort in the tackle, it was usually one versus one. On the other hand, Meath continuously progress in their fitness and use that physicality. It’s not a case of other teams not doing similar programmes, it’s just that Meath quite frankly don’t care.
And the more that ladies football progresses, the more issues we’re going to have when it comes to the fluidity of our game. If a tackle is terrible, the crowd will audibly gasp. When players in ladies football come out of defence with the ball and collide with the opposition, it’s more a groan of frustration because the ball carrier is always penalised while defenders can just chest bump them.
Irrespective of the rules, the Meath story continues to grow. Duggan now faces the challenge of leading from the front, while Wall continues to flourish both with the round and oval balls. Over the weekend, Galway proved if you get into a dogfight with Meath there is a chance of rattling them. That being said, Galway have such an extensive panel where one player going off doesn’t weaken the team.
The public’s interest in Meath continues to blossom because of these storylines and narratives. Páirc Tailteann has its fair share of supporters out to support the other girls in green. It’s only a matter of time until we see if this young, fun and incredibly entertaining group can continue with bigger targets on their backs and bigger ambitions in front of them.