GAA season in review: Cork were stunned by sensational Meath comeback

Ger McCarthy looks back at a defining day for the Rebels and the Royals in this year’s TG4 All-Ireland LGFA championship.
GAA season in review: Cork were stunned by sensational Meath comeback

Cork's Doireann O'Sullivan argues for a late free in the loss to Meath. Picture: INPHO/Ryan Byrne

The Leinster side showed why they were capable of challenging for top honours, before claiming the Brendan Martin Cup.

In hindsight, the warning signs were there that day in Birr, County Offaly. Cork were pushed to the pin of their collar by an up-and-coming Meath team, before emerging with the hardest-earned 1-9 to 0-10 TG4 All-Ireland LGFA Group B victory last July.

Overcoming his opponents’ tactical set-up and earning a victory despite numerous injuries, Cork did what they had to do and got out of Birr with a win.

The few people lucky enough to be granted access to Birr GAA grounds (due to Covid-19 restrictions) were thinking and talking about one team on the long drive home that evening: Meath.

Eammon Murray’s team may have lost to a more experienced opponent, but the manner in which Meath went to-to-toe with Cork, plus their lack of fear when attacking at the earliest opportunity, marked the Leinster side out as a potential All-Ireland contender.

Did we believe 2020 All-Ireland Intermediate champions, Meath, would go on to win the 2021 All-Ireland LGFA senior title that day? Honestly, no.

Yet, there was enough quality within Meath’s ranks, allied with a simple and effective game plan, to suggest they were a county capable of challenging sooner rather than later.

Getting numbers behind the ball is one thing — at times there were no Meath players in Cork’s half — but being able to counter-attack at pace and be effective in possession is another.

Meath’s tactics may have looked straightforward, but Eammon Murray’s players carried out his instructions to perfection and would reap the benefits before the year was out.

Meath goalkeeper, Monica McGuirk, proved a safe pair of hands throughout the championship and the accuracy of her kickouts formed the launchpad of many of her team’s attacks.

Vikki Wall and Máire O’Shaughnessy were an imposing midfield partnership, each capable of bursting forward whenever an opportunity arose.

Behind them, full-back Mary Kate Lynch and centre-back Aoibhin Cleary attracted few headlines but anchored a tough-tackling defence. Meath restricted Cork to five scores from open play that afternoon.

Super-fit, committed to their manager’s game plan, and not afraid to get physical, this was a well-coached, well-prepared Meath team that wanted to lay down a marker. Despite losing, Meath achieved that goal in Birr.

Cork lost both Orla Finn and Máire O’Callaghan to injury during the game, were already without Emma Spillane (hamstring), and missing a host of other regular starters.

When questions were asked of a depleted Cork side, they responded and ground out a deserved win. Eimear Scally’s return to the Cork senior set-up was an important development and enabled Cork to move on and qualify for an All-Ireland semi-final. Cork’s opponents? Meath.

That Croke Park semi-final encounter will go down as one of the most unexpected comebacks in ladies’ football history.

Meath came from seven points behind with less than three minutes to go to force extra-time.

Eamonn Murray’s side went on to win 2-12 to 2-10, before shocking Dublin in the All-Ireland final.

People will point to Cork’s capitulation at the end of that game, but Ephie Fitzgerald had his tactics spot on and his side were in control until the 57th minute.

It is to Meath’s credit that they stuck to their game plan, continued to press forward, and refused to give up.

You don’t defeat an experienced side like Cork in an All-Ireland semi-final without self-belief and Meath had that trait in abundance.

Many believed that was the day the Royal county came of age, but for those who were there, that Group B loss to Cork was the real turning point earlier in the summer.

Meath showed they could mix it with the best in ladies’ football that day and the lessons learned from that narrow defeat laid the foundations for the most unexpected of All-Ireland final victories.

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