Meath v Kerry: Ladies football thriving as number of clubs doubles in 20 years

Christy O'Connor previews today's All-Ireland final in Croke Park and looks at the growth of the LGFA in the modern era
Meath v Kerry: Ladies football thriving as number of clubs doubles in 20 years

Tara Needham of Mayo in action against Ciara Murphy of Kerry. Picture: Piaras Ó Mídheach/Sportsfile

BEFORE last year’s All-Ireland ladies football final, Paul Garrigan, a member of the Meath backroom team, gave each of the players an envelope containing a little pebble.

The message was simple. “Chip away at this,” Garrigan said. “You’ll crack it open and find out what’s inside.” 

 Once Meath did, they walked into nirvana. Meath defied all the odds to beat a Dublin side chasing five-in-a-row, but Garrigan’s gesture had a deeper meaning than just a gimmick. Four years earlier, shortly after Eamonn Murray was appointed Meath manager, Garrigan presented each player with a rock.

The rocks were a decent size. The task was basic. Keep chipping away at it. Meath did. After beating Westmeath in the 2020 All-Ireland Intermediate final, Garrigan presented the group with a medium-sized stone. By the time Meath defeated Dublin last year, the rock had been ground into dust.

Meath’s breakthrough success was even more remarkable considering where they came from. Ritual slaughter from the top teams. Player apathy. Minimal interest across the board.

Murray’s appointment though, saw them steer a new course, through the Intermediate grade back into senior and from Division 3 to Division 1 within two seasons.

Vikki Wall of Meath shoots to score a point during the TG4 All-Ireland semi-final win over Donegal at Croke Park. Picture: Piaras Ó Mídheach/Sportsfile
Vikki Wall of Meath shoots to score a point during the TG4 All-Ireland semi-final win over Donegal at Croke Park. Picture: Piaras Ó Mídheach/Sportsfile

The train just kept powering on. In April, Meath won a first National League Division 1 title, defeating a Donegal side in the final that were also seeking a first crown.

Donegal had beaten Dublin in the semi-final. They hadn’t exactly come out of nowhere, having reached the 2017 league final, which they lost to Cork by one point. Yet Donegal’s presence in that league final four months ago was another alteration of the terrain that Meath so radically ripped up last September.

Meath had never even reached an All-Ireland final prior to last year but now they’re looking to take over, which show how the landscape suddenly appears so different now.

Sunday’s All-Ireland final is the first decider in 20 years that hasn’t included either Cork or Dublin, or both. Prior to last year, both counties had shared the previous 16 titles.

This final is a complete clash of Old Order versus New Order, or more a case of Old Order desperately trying to become New World.

Kerry once ruled this terrain with an iron fist, having won nine All-Irelands in a row between 1982-1990. But their last title was in 1993. Kerry’s last final appearance was 10 years ago when they were whipped by Cork.

EMERGING TALENT

Reaching this final is another endorsement of the continuing cultural expansion right across the ladies game. Kerry have always been around but new teams are emerging right across the board.

Thirteen teams started out in this championship. Dublin and Cork were beaten in the All-Ireland quarter-final stage by Donegal and Mayo respectively. Meath were extremely lucky to advance to the last four, having scraped past Galway by one point, with Emma Duggan kicking the winning score in the dying moments.

When Kerry defeated Armagh in their All-Ireland quarter-final, it was a repeat of the Division 2 final back in April, which Kerry also won.

Trailing by four points heading into the fourth quarter, Kerry found a way to avoid the prospect of a third Division 2 final defeat in the space of four years.

Kerry have made huge progress but, similar to Meath last year, they’re also looking to win an All-Ireland from Division 2. Prior to last year, there had only been one previous occasion in the history of ladies football when a team came from the Intermediate championship and won the senior title the following season.

Today presents the opportunity to manage that feat twice inside the space of 11 months. The mood feels different now but there’s no doubting the impact of Meath’s win against Dublin last September, and how it has proven to be the catalyst for so many other teams to believe that anything is possible.

It had to be considering where Meath had come from; they lost six championship matches in 2015 and 2016 by an aggregate margin of 133 points. Under Murray, Meath just built it up from the bottom with an ideal mix of youth and experience; six of the current squad played in 2015 when Cork annihilated them by 40 points.

Meath’s success and progress have given a massive shot in the arm to the ladies game. But they just needed someone to push that boulder over the hill to show the proliferation and popularity of ladies Gaelic football, and how more girls are playing than ever before, at all levels.

In the last two decades, membership of the Ladies Gaelic Football Association has increased by close to 120,000. The number of clubs have doubled in that time, now at over 1,400, and rising.

More players and clubs means deeper connections. The game’s profile has never been higher. Over 600,000 TV viewers tuned in across the day’s coverage of last year’s All-Ireland ladies finals.

Similar to last year, every inter-county game this year was either shown on TG4 or streamed on Facebook or YouTube. On a more local level, many underage and club games were available the same way.

The LGFA’s link with TG4 was a game-changer, especially when such huge TV exposure has made it easy to attract big sponsorship. The LGFA’s link-up with Lidl has presented the sport to the public in a way they never imagined before this. Back in February, the LGFA and Lidl announced a four-year partnership extension until 2025, which will represent an investment of €10 million over 10 years.

Ladies football has never been stronger. Rocks are being reduced to dust. Everywhere.

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