Fairytales are one of the only storylines in sports that always bring us back. The possibilities, dreams, and chances for one shot at glory are as old as time.
The Meath ladies football team could technically be defined as a fairytale. From the outside, the underdog pushing through top contenders Cork and Dublin to win an All-Ireland senior title.
From the inside this is a team, under Eamonn Murray, who came through the intermediate grade into senior and from Division 3 to Division 1 within two seasons. Along the way, they won the holy grails from each division and grade.
Of course, context is critical. There was very little interest from the boards in Meath ladies football. Instead, you had barrier breakers and stereotype smashers along the way. If you don’t care, then we’ll make you care.
Meath were also routinely the whooping team against various top teams that they have toppled in their quest to be more than one-hit wonders.
Meath captain Shauna Ennis said it best during their civic reception hosted by Meath County Council. Nobody wanted them, nobody wanted to be near them and morale was low.
To see the growth of ladies' football and the rise of the underdogs adds an intriguing storyline to the game
Fast forward less than five years and the revolution that has taken place in Meath is remarkable. Meath have some of the highest numbers of players in ladies' football at underage level, stands are packed and, more importantly, they’re making people sit up and watch ladies' football.
In fact, in my five years on this page, this year was the only year I would routinely be asked by strangers about the Meath ladies’ football team. It’s rare to see an impact like that.
With their counter-attacking, fast-paced style of football, it is hard not to be enamoured. The league final against Donegal had some incredible highlights and scores.
It was also a fascinating tactical battle between Murray and Donegal manager Maxi Curran, and there was the onfield battle with Amy Boyle Carr and Vikki Wall and the well-executed penalty by Niamh McLaughlin in the first half. Add to that the steely left hand of Monica McGuirk saving Meath on two separate occasions.
To see the growth of ladies' football and the rise of the underdogs adds an intriguing storyline to the game. From a Donegal perspective they were last in the top four teams in the country in 2017 when they lost to Cork by one point in the Division One decider and you could argue that they never kicked on.
Their journey has been the total opposite of Meath and not as smooth. With so many players based across the country, the squad have to train in Omagh and while Donegal are one of few teams who could easily offer excuses they refuse to do so.
The rise of ladies football is well-noted at this stage. In the past two decades membership of the Ladies Gaelic Football Association (LGFA) has increased by almost 120,000. The number of clubs has also doubled in that time, now at over 1,400 and continuing to rise.
With the growth in clubs and memberships comes deeper connections, unity, attachment to the community and that integral spirit and rivalry found in the men’s games. That creates storylines which in turn creates hype which then turns into spectators. Spectators, of course, mean revenue.
Women's sports can't possibly grow without significant investment and collaboration between organisations, sponsors, fans and players
But another form of revenue that is so vital is sponsorship, something the LGFA have managed to bring in with Lidl in a more meaningful and connected way. At the start of the year the LGFA and Lidl announced a four-year partnership extension until 2025, representing an investment of €10 million over 10 years. Additionally, various teams are finding individual sponsors for their respective teams.
Add to that the incredible coverage with TG4 continuing every year to top the previous years' output. That exposure is something that women's sports across the globe would pay millions for and TG4 have been vital in popularising ladies football. In fact, last year's All-Ireland final was seen by over 600,000 people with audiences up year on year.
Ladies football and the LGFA have continued to defy expectations, as have the likes of Meath and even Donegal. To be an ever-growing game, the game needs to modernise with the players. Strength and conditioning has grown since these rules were written and people want fast-flowing and exciting football. The likes of the charging rule and not allowing physicality could hold the game back.
But, for now, the message is still the same. Women’s sports can’t possibly grow without significant investment and collaboration between organisations, sponsors, fans and players. LGFA is on the up, and let’s hope it has what it takes to take the next step.