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In Awe Of Mná: Looking Back On A Thrilling All-Ireland Final Day

In Awe Of Mná: Looking Back On A Thrilling All-Ireland Final Day
By Roisin Friel Updated

For the latter part of the 2022 LGFA Championship, Donegal and Termon's Róisín Friel has been providing outstanding analysis on the big talking points in ladies football. Without further ado, we present an epic instalment of Róisín's Ramblings, looking back on a tremendous of ladies football at Croke Park on Sunday.

46,440 people turned out in Croke Park creating a cauldron of atmosphere, as thousands more enjoyed TG4’s brilliant live coverage of the LGFA All-Ireland Finals. Including some detailed and insightful analysis from current and former inter-county LGFA players. Their particular knowledge on tactical and statistical side of the game pointing out the small things that just bring an added colour of enjoyment to the casual viewer. 

Junior final: Antrim v Fermanagh

31 July 2022; Fermanagh manager James Daly speaks to his team after their draw in the TG4 All-Ireland Ladies Football Junior Championship Final match between Antrim and Fermanagh at Croke Park in Dublin. Photo by Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile

Antrim and Fermanagh will thankfully give us another day out after a nail-biting finish to the opening game, the Junior Final. Having watched these two battle it out in an Ulster Final earlier this season, in which Antrim only just came out on top in, it was well flagged that this was an opening appetiser well worth dining out on. The influence of James Daly and Caoimhe Morgan is evident on the pitch with this Fermanagh team. They bring a defensive sharpness and quick transition into supplying two of the most dangerous forwards on the pitch in Eimear Smyth and Bláthín Bogue, you can’t but help take a quick inhale of anticipation if either decides to take on a defender. Antrim, however are well aware of the threat Fermanagh possess and have the Kryptonite ready made in Saoirse Tennyson and Lara Dahunsi, two fearless leaders within the core of the Antrim team. 

What ensued was a ding dong battle we had all hoped for, the opening exchanges of points in a topsy turvey battle, leaving only a point between them. Then Marie O’Neill lit up Croke Park with an opening goal for Antrim, that can placed amongst the great All-Ireland final goals. It was like something you would see the Tik-Tok green screen costume folks up to: the manner in which she deftly guided the ball into the top corner of the net. Glorious.

Bláthín Bogue, however seemed delighted to be carrying the fight for Fermanagh. Kicking points and making a general nuisance of herself at every opportunity, including having a controversial goal ruled as square ball. This seemed to breathe belief into Fermanagh’s challenge and with Eimear Smyth having ever greater influence on open play it was only time before they got on top.

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Then came one of those big game moments as Marie O’Neill again bared down on the Fermanagh goal, this time however as if guided by some mysterious force her shot belted off the Fermanagh post. Her shock was evident after, how did that not go in!  Another big moment again, controversially, Fermanagh was awarded a penalty that for all to see on the replay was actually a 13 meter free given where the foul occurred. Smyth tucking it away nicely even with Anna McCann’s best Jerzy Dudek impressions. This game continued to swing with Cathy Carey showing why she’s captain of the Saffron charge, poking and prodding open the Fermanagh rear guard.

As Fermanagh levelled matters, Smyth banged over a huge point from play worthy of wining any game. Antrim broke down the field winning a free that Orlaith Prenter gratefully slotted over, to bring it all level and get us another day out with these two teams going toe to toe. 

It ended an opening salvo that was an utterly enthralling watch. Both teams will leave knowing they could have won that game, Antrim will rue the large wide count kicked as they seemed to snatch at some of the chances that came their way. While Fermanagh will have to reduce their unforced error count, a number of times the sharp defending turning over Antrim attacks only to give back possession during their transition to attack. The great thing is this one really is in the melting pot again for the replay either could win it and I am just delighted we get to watch some of the best footballers in Ulster go at it again.

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Intermediate final: Laois v Wexford

Laois and Wexford provided us with worthy participants for the Intermediate final, both having disposed of strong semi-finalist opponents. This game had many stories weaved into its DNA as All-Ireland Finals often do. Wexford returning to the stage of last year’s upset hoping for redemption. Laois carrying many great individual stories including that of Mo Nerney, who was mascot for Laois’s last great All-Ireland final day victory in 2001. 

The opening exchanges of this one was all about the defences, both teams well aware of the forward threat of the opposition. Aisling Murphy, who’s four goals for Wexford in the semi-final wasn’t going to be afforded breathing space in the Laois scoring zone. Similarly Mo Nerney, Erone Fitzpatrick and Emma Lawlor were all well marshalled by a resolute Wexford defence in the early phases. Then there was a sign of things to come, as Laois again turned over a Wexford kick-out Aisling Donoher marched down the middle of the Wexford defence like a band through the town on summer festival day, opening up space for a quick interchange to Eva Galvin, who set Mo Nerney on her way.

Striking low and to the bottom corner like the thousands of shots she no doubt practiced in the back garden, it lifted the Laois supporters into a frenzy in Croke Park. Laois continued to pile the pressure on Wexford, in particular the Wexford kick-out often swallowed up by Ellen Healy, Anna Healy and Jane Moore most often driven back over their own bar as Laois clicked into another gear. Wexford seemed shell-shocked, unable to get going. Was it hangover from the previous years’ experience, only they will know?

Early into the second half Laois had stretched their lead out to ten points and it was hard to see how Wexford would find a way back into the game. However, in Catríona Carey and Bernie Breen they had two brilliant leaders as they forward unit began to finally click they dragged themselves back to within six points.

Hitting the T section of the Laois goalposts and drawing out one of the best saves of the day from Eimear Barry, they just couldn’t find enough to claw back the Laois lead built up by Nerney and Co.

It should be noted that the Laois defensive display was outstanding Donoher was fantastic and even in her short absence, Clodagh Dunne seemed to develop the skills of a border patrol unit, closing of any avenue of entry to the Laois scoring zone time and time again.

Laois, in all were fully deserving of their victory having got it tactically right on the day in regards to the opposition kick-out and taking advantage of the slow start from Wexford they were ruthless when it was required up front. They will join an interesting Leinster Senior championship next year, knowing they have the building blocks to produce some similar magic Meath have found in recent years. 

At this point I would like to acknowledge the utterly brilliant individuals who have plied their trade in the Junior and Intermediate Championship, you have given us all some truly great games this past season. Again this year the LGFA have reverted to type with one set of All-Stars chosen from all three championships. Players like Bláthín Bogue or Eimear Barry or Saoirse Tennyson deserve recognition for their individual performances throughout the year. The inclusion of a similar model to our Camogie counterparts in having Rising All-stars should be considered. Some will say its tokenism and that to be recognised in the standard All-Stars show true exceptionalism for a junior or intermediate player. Yet, there is nothing to stop the suits including someone from Junior or Intermediate in the All-Star 15, even with a set of 15 rising All-Stars, if their performances so warranted. To not acknowledge that two thirds of our championships also produce stars in their own right is an injustice to their work ethic and performances. A small gripe but sure All-Stars will always produce controversy. 

Senior final: Meath v Kerry

The grand finale, the meeting of reigning Royals, Meath and pretenders to the throne, the Kingdom of Kerry. This match was a hard one to call, the Meath machine runs on a tactical system that has chewed up all opponents in its wake. The Kerry style and skill had blown opposition defences open with high scoring rates, backboned by brilliant defensive nous.  The crowd swelled in Croke Park for throw-in, green and gold everywhere and deafening atmosphere as the teams prowled round the field behind the Artane Band eyeing each other up, it just felt like this one would produce a classic. From the throw-in Kerry brought a ferocious pace to the game. 

Playing almost old school catch-and-kick football aiming to get the ball inside to the danger women Siofra O’Shea and Louise Ní Mhuircheartaigh, before the Meath bricklayers could get the defensive walls built. This approach paying early dividends for the Kingdom as Louise, glided a ball over Monica McGuirk and nestling it into the Meath net. Kerry supporters would have been forgiven for getting carried away so early in the game, the Meath machine was slowly clicking into gear yet Kerry seemed to absorb the early Meath pressure.

Then came the Champions response Stacey Grimes kicking expertly again from a placed ball, then came Emma Troy’s goal. An exceptional run started from just inside the Kerry half way line she sprinted drawing Kerry defenders to her as she headed to the corner flag and Grimes maintained possession moving into the space created by Troy’s initial run, at this point Troy does something all young players should be encourage to learn, she adjusts to change direction and continues her run heading back toward the Kerry goal offering Grimes an out ball again. This time Grimes accepts her assistance and Troy going at such high pace has left the defenders in her wake one on one with keeper she brings the champions back within a point finishing brilliantly to the Kerry net. Vikki Wall, has become renowned for her colossal displays and was not to be found wanting here. Kicking a brilliant score and at all times producing herself for transition runs into the Kerry half of the field.

The Kerry defence was under intense pressure and even with the exceptional Kayleigh Cronin and Aishling O’Connell, thwarting some Meath attacks the sustained pressure on the Kerry kick-out from Meath continually produced chances and scores. Although when Kerry did win the midfield battle they again set about quickly opening the Meath rear guard with exceptional kick-passing accuracy and points from Paris McCarthy and a real clinker from Lorraine Scanlon kept them in touch. The second half was played at a less frantic pace with both teams guilty of snatching at chances, unusually so for Emma Duggan it was a hard afternoon in front of the posts. Although such is the standards she has set for herself recently, her team mates were only too happy to take on some of her workload. None more so than Niamh O’Sullivan, an absolute workhorse, she sprinted inside the Kerry defence after a kick-out again faltered from the Kingdom to palm to the net after Grimes showing the importance of giving the ball to the player in the best position.

The Kerry team who had come with so much hope into this match were now being put to bed by the Champions, as Bridgetta Lynch all but sealed their fate with a third killer goal. 

Kerry continued to run towards that Meath defensive wall and couldn’t find a way through, finding out as Aimee Mackin noted on the Sunday Game that until you face the system, you don’t understand how hard it is to break it down. A number of times Kerry players opted to take contact while inside the Meath rear guard, something they are only to delighted to swallow up, with numbers arriving once a player is slowed to either turnover or invite an over carrying offence. Meath did somewhat misfire up front with the usual danger woman off pace, Aoibheann Clearly and Orla Lally continually drove Meath forward. A mark of an exceptional team is being able to win games even when not all things are going your way or as planned, nothing short of what we expect now from a Meath team who have placed themselves amongst the greats by winning back-to-back All-Irelands

A final note on Sunday, a huge crowd again turned out to Croker. 491,000 tuned in at home on the same day England hosted a successful women’s euro event in Wembley. It just feels like a fantastic time in women’s sport at the moment, particularly when as noted by Mayo great Fiona McHale you can see our own exceptional Mná in every facet of our games. Rena Buckley, Louise Galvin, Caoimhe Morgan and Aisling Donohor: all mothers, all involved in different aspects of All-Ireland finals on Sunday.

Yet again this championship season, I stand in awe of all mná. 

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