Monica McGuirk: Meath keen to prove we are not a one-hit wonder

Goalkeeper says victory over Dublin team targeting five in a row is a life-long memory

Monica McGuirk at the launch of the 2022 Lidl Ladies National Football League. Photograph: Brendan Moran/Sportsfile

The partying, Monica McGuirk confirms, is over. “We have to park 2021 and leave it there,” she says, Meath’s sole focus now their Lidl National Football League campaign which gets under way on Saturday.

But boy, what a party.

“They say your life turns upside down when you win your first All-Ireland,” she smiles, “and I can say for a fact that it does”.

The celebrations after her county’s remarkable victory over the five-in-a-row-seeking Dublin last September will, she says, live with her forever.

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“From the minute we got on the bus to leave Croke Park to go to Trim, going up the drive to Knightsbrook, arriving at the hotel, the crowds were something I’ve never experienced before.”

The congratulatory “messages and cards” flooded in from all over the country, the bulk of them saluting a team that only three years before had been playing in Division Three of the league and in the intermediate championship.

When she returned to training with Meath in preparation for the league, she saw firsthand the impact of the team’s success. “We had a panel of 40, 45, but it could easily have been 50 or more, we have people fighting just for spots on the panel now, never mind the team.

“But I’d seen it at club level, at underage and in schools. There before Christmas we had the club championship finals in Páirc Tailteann, it was a double-header with the men and the women which had never happened before. And the women’s game got as many as the men’s.

“And we saw it when we brought the cup around the schools, girls asking for your autograph, telling you all they want to do is play for Meath. That’s something I never heard when I was growing up. It’s just fantastic.”

McGuirk was speaking at the launch of the new league campaign where it was announced that Lidl has extended its sponsorship of the women’s game, which began in 2016, to the end of 2025, pledging to invest a further €5 million in the sport which will bring its input to €10 million over 10 years.

The Meath story alone has given them fair old bang for their buck, few team achievements capturing the imagination quite like it did last year.

For McGuirk, the Meath goalkeeper who collected her second All Star in three years last November, that magical day in Croke Park more than vindicated her decision in 2018 to give up soccer, her first sporting love.

Ambition

Her sole sporting ambition as a youngster was to become the Irish goalkeeper, but despite a few promising years in the National League with Peamount United and UCD Waves, it wasn’t to be.

There were good days, though, the highlight an appearance in the 2014 FAI Cup final at the Aviva Stadium when her UCD side lost to Raheny United in extra time, a player by the name of Katie McCabe scoring a free from 35 yards against her.

Other than that, the day that stands out is when she was in goal for Peamount when a certain Stephanie Roche scored an effort that earned her a Puskas goal of the year nomination. "I had the best view, I was privileged to be playing on the same pitch as Steph that day, she put women's soccer on the map."

But come 2018, McGuirk, frustrated by "being told I wasn't good enough", took a break from soccer. Within a week, Meath manager Eamonn Murray was on the phone asking her to return to the Gaelic football fold, McGuirk having been intermittently involved since being part of the Meath under-14 set-up. "And I've never looked back – it's probably the best decision I ever made in my footballing career," she says.

In 2022, though, it’s a case of the hunters becoming the hunted. No under-the-radar stuff this time around for the reigning All-Ireland champions.

“Yeah, it’s a totally different mindset compared to this time last year – then we were just focusing on staying up in Division Two, now we’re in Division One for the first time in a long time. So we have a huge hunger going in to this, starting with Cork on Saturday. Obviously there’s all these questions about whether we’re a one-hit wonder, but we’ll embrace the challenge.

“You’re into 2022 now, 2021 is done. There are times when I feel myself drifting off, ‘Oh remember last year and what we did’. It’s hard to switch off because it’s something you’re never going to forget. It was only four months ago, it’s not as if we’re talking 12 or 13. It’s a quick turnaround. This league is after flying in.”

How many times have you replayed the final?

“Numerous times,” she laughs. “Still, to this day, I’d flick it on, have another look. It’s something that will be embedded in my memory forever.”

Mary Hannigan

Mary Hannigan

Mary Hannigan is a sports writer with The Irish Times