League of Opportunity – LIDL Division 3 Final preview – Meath v Wexford

League of Opportunity.

Front loaded with youth, back boned with experience, the Royalettes are nicely placed entering the home straight of the 2018 Lidl LGFA National League Competition. The management shuffled the pack that saw four goalkeepers get game time. All acquitted themselves with aplomb in what is often the tail gunner position. Ten great saves forgotten, one blunder follows you and your family for a generation.

Twenty eight players used over eight league games by my reckoning, scoring 32- 111 and conceding 12-39 shows the DNA of this team. A pattern of two wins followed by a loss, then two more wins punctuated by a further loss with the pattern picking up with two more wins. Break the pattern on Monday and a silver cup is on the table, the seasons goal has been achieved, Meath flee Division 3 of the league. Division 3 is akin to being invited to the afters of a wedding. You are part of an extended list but not worthy of the old dinner and boring Mass bit.

Management pick up on the executive and support structures. It’s fair to say that under the stewardship of Fearghal O’hAthairne and his county board, clear lines of delineation are in place. Managers manage, boards ensure they are backed. With a panel of thirty plus at times, the trick is to build a main frame but in holding that frame in place, the juggling act that separates safety from advancement is how judiciously you work that panel. No point getting splinters in your bum over a campaign and never getting the studs on the grass in a meaningful way.

The Royal management team achieved the feat of featuring the panel. All girls got meaningful time. Positional changes were also tried out. Niamh Gallogly featured at wing back and wing forward. Aoibhin Cleary got game time at wing and centre forward,  wing back and midfield. Katie Newe and Niamh Lister vied for corner back, a managers dream. Midfield remind me of the Galway duo, Kevin Walshe and Sean O’Domhnaill, the Tall Tree and Lighthouse of two All Ireland wins. The forward lines combine speed of thought and foot. Vikki Wall gives another dimension, a break from weaving and running into an mòdh dírach.

Fitness is vital today and having spent too many decades around allegedly fit teams let me compliment both the girls and fitness team on the standard of strength and conditioning this team possesses. They will need it from here on in. Each game is a defining moment, one big slip on the banana skin and the result could determine the Royal progress for a year. Leadership exists on each line, loud and vocal when needed, sleeves rolled and head up as required. Niamh O Sullivan exemplifies the team.

This league started in January. It seems like ten years ago such has been the darkness and clinging greatness of this eternal winter. Vikki Wall took Down for 2-3. The free taking of Stacy Grimes lit up Dunganny and Megan Thynne ran with purpose.  Next Longford got a beating. It’s easy to get sucked down into ennui when you are so far ahead, but the highest respect you can give to your opponent is to keep at them. The Royal did this. Roscommon on a grey Lomans pitch jolted the free run. Roscommon were good and Meath found it difficult to prize their door open. Often giving a few inches to their Meath opponents, the Rossies asked the questions and provided their own script.

The beating Leitrim took would have killed most girls but I was in awe of their guts. Meath worked their socks off, changes were made after the Roscommon loss and the team was reminded that they operate with a squad. No one is safe. Grimes and Thynne tore up Dunganny, covering each blade of grass. Now came a biggie. Kildare would pose questions and they did…for the first half. Meath upped the tempo and went for it in the second half. Fiona O Neill made a return from injury. Now came Wexford. That would tell a tale. And it did. I arrived five minutes late and the man on the gate told me Meath should have had three goals on the board.

Quickly my eyes adjusted to the game as I tried to figure who and where everybody was. Meath were in control but a pattern was becoming evident. They were profligate in their shooting. Wexford are an experienced team and scented that. Sarah Powderly put in a massive shift but that indicated that the back line were in the firing line. Discipline is vital and in the line of duty The Royal shipped a costly yellow. For the ten minutes of punishment Meath went toe to toe with Wexford, scoring 0-2 themselves and keeping Wexford to 1-1 for about eight of those minutes before the dam ruptured and Wexford scored 1-2 before Meath had their 15 back on the pitch. The leakage of 2-3 in that period was the difference at the end of the match. A chastening beating.

Back to the heavy and cold Edenderry in Offaly. Sticky pitch, great to actually be on grass again after so much snow. This was a changed team again. Offaly were a physically strong outfit but Meath were coasting. Then around midway into the second half Offaly found a bit of rhythm. Meath comfortable lead was being gnawed at. Cometh the hour, cometh the woman. Niamh Lister entered what was turning out into a squeaky bum battle. Her strength and ball winning ability settled the Royals and a semi final spot was secured. The first part of the plan was achieved.

Down simply weren’t allowed to show up for the semi final. A credit to them for  never throwing in the towel but they met the wrong outfit on the wrong day. A hunger runs through this team and next Monday they get a chance to dine for a place in a better class hotel next season. Maybe eventually getting to the wedding not the afters? Cash is king and so is possession. Dublin after conceding to Lee Keegan’s goal on last years All Ireland final were there for the taking. But they moved the chill factor to -1 and held possession of the most important implement on the pitch, the ball. Only once did they give it air and Diarmuid Connolly arrived on the end of it, clattering into Chris Barrett and winning a winners free.

Barrett had wrested eight turn overs in that final, the biggest ever, he was on for man of the match had Mayo won. Perhaps another referee wouldn’t have blown against him but Connolly gambled on the hard work done by his compadres and on such margins hangs fate and destiny. Connolly, a sub like Costello a year earlier v Mayo both showed the importance of having a strong bench, a bench a manager believes in and of more importance, has the cojones of knowing when to use it. Meath ladies possess attributes to become one of the great outfits. Solid management, young blend of players mixed with seasoned campaigners, a thing you cannot buy, pace and an eye for the posts. It would be a shame if they postponed or delayed the journey on next Monday. At them girls and the final whistle will unleash that inner scream, the one that shouts “we are up!””.