After her first year on the Meath senior team, back in 2015, Vikki Wall would have been forgiven for concluding that life was far too short to be playing football for a county in free-fall, experiencing one humiliation after another. She remembers crying in the car on the way home from games with her father, the worst of days coming in August of that year when Cork hammered them by 40 points, 7-22 to 0-3.
Two months before, former Mayo All-Ireland winner Diane O'Hora resigned as Meath manager, her parting shot a statement in which she excoriated the county board for giving little support to the women's team.
“It saddens me that this management team can no longer put up with the treatment of ourselves in what we are trying to achieve and most especially the disrespectful treatment of players,” she said.
“Meath has not been successful for 15 years . . . the talent is there and I felt I was the right person to lead the way with a professional approach, but having asked the county board for their strategic plan, I’m still shocked to have not received it. Where, without leadership, is the county going?”
She thanked the players for their efforts and wished them the best for the future. "I will take a 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."
Even in those days, when all we were doing was losing, it was always an honour to represent your county, whether it was in Croke Park or just a random pitch for the first league game of the year
There wasn’t much sign of it happening, though, over the next two years when Meath had three more managers, were relegated to the third division in the league and chose to drop down from senior to intermediate level in the championship after another disheartening campaign. For Wall and her team-mates, it was a soul-destroying spell.
When you were crying in the car, what did your dad say to you?
“He’s a very honest man,” says Wall. “He’d always have said there was no one forcing me to play for my county, and he was dead right. But even in those days, when all we were doing was losing, it was always an honour to represent your county, whether it was in Croke Park or just a random pitch for the first league game of the year. That’s the way I looked at it. I chose to do it, I loved it, loved going to training with the group of girls who were there, even at the times when things got really tough.”
"And they got really tough. I remember Offaly travelling down to play us in the league, they only had 15 or 16 players, and they annihilated us. We were really, really struggling for numbers in those days, and I don't blame the girls who walked away. I was only 16, 17, I was in school, it was easier for me. But for the girls in their 20s going travelling or whatever was a lot more appealing than playing for Meath when we were losing by serious scorelines, week-in, week-out."
The 23-year-old from Dunboyne, who was the 2020 Intermediate Player of the Year, laughs when you tell her that if you drew a graph representing Meath's journey in the last 10 years or so, it would look exactly like a V – a plunge to the depths followed by a meteoric rise. Well, perhaps more gradual than meteoric?
"It has been gradual, yeah, but there were a few key turning points too. Eamonn Murray's appointment as manager in 2017 was absolutely huge, people had huge respect for him and the work he had done at underage level. And Paul Garrigan coming in as coach was so important too, they work so well together.
“Another turning point was us opting to drop down to intermediate level. At the time I definitely wasn’t in favour of it, I wanted to stay at senior because I wanted to compete at the highest level. But in hindsight, yeah, it was the best thing the county could ever have done. We were losing week-in, week-out by big scores, not getting any closer to these bigger teams, so we were able to go back and regroup. It definitely helped us, getting a few wins under the belt, and getting the confidence back.”
Since then? They've risen to Division One again, sealing promotion by beating Kerry in June's Division Two final. They returned to the senior championship ranks by winning last December's Intermediate All-Ireland final, having lost in the previous two. And they beat Tipperary, Armagh, last year's semi-finalists, and the mighty Cork – having trailed by seven points with less than five minutes to go – to reach their first ever senior All-Ireland final where they will play the five-in-a-row seeking Dublin on Sunday.
“It’s been some year,” she laughs, “I couldn’t even describe how happy we were after beating Cork. We definitely didn’t plan on being seven points down, but it was just about playing until the literal last minute. But Eamonn and Paul had prepared us for those situations, what we’d do if we found ourselves down like that with minutes to go.”
It was hard to imagine us ever making it this far, but in the last two or three years I don't think we'd have seen it as unattainable
Along with goalkeeper Monica McGuirk and captain Shauna Ennis, Wall was one of three players who started the semi-final who also played in that 40-point defeat by Cork back in 2015. The journey from that demoralising day in Thurles to Sunday in Croke Park, when the trio will line out against Dublin, has been, at times, a painful one, but, says Wall, they will be "bursting with pride" when they take to that pitch.
“We’re under no illusions about how tough it will be against Dublin, they and Cork have been the standard bearers for ladies’ football in recent years, we have huge respect for them. But we’ll go in backing ourselves, we have huge belief.”
“Back then, it was hard to imagine us ever making it this far, but in the last two or three years I don’t think we’d have seen it as unattainable. I don’t know if we thought we’d get there so soon, but there’s been a lot of belief in the camp after all the work put in and how professional the set-up has become.
“In those years we would have struggled at times to field a team, but this year we’ve had huge numbers, a panel of around 40. There’s just a real buzz in the county now, so many young girls playing football.”
“And we’ve had really good underage teams the last few years, so when you can get six or seven minors filtering in to the senior team every year, it helps. We have that good mix now, girls who are used to winning at underage level, and some of us who have seen where Meath football has been. We don’t dwell too much on the past, but we know where we’ve come from. And now, we are where we always wanted to be.”