Experience the key for Meath Ladies ahead of fourth successive semi-final
LADIES IFC Meath hoping to reach All-Ireland IFC final for third year in-a-row
That seemingly endless quest for Meath to claim the Ladies All-Ireland IFC title and return to senior football will continue at Semple Stadium on Saturday from 2.45pm as they take on Clare for a place in the Croke Park final against either Westmeath or Roscommon in December.
Saturday's semi-final will be Meath's fourth successive last four appearance since they opted to be regraded from senior to the intermediate grade at the end of the 2016 campaign.
At the time the decision to drop down a level looked to be the right one as Meath were struggling for many years in the top flight and had gone a few campaigns without victory, but since then a talented crop of youngsters with plenty of success at minor level have emerged and suggested that the Royals could well be a force at senior level.
However, to get back up to senior they first have to win the All-Ireland IFC and that is certainly proving easier said than done, and even though they are favourites to make the leap this year they cannot afford to take their eyes off a very dangerous Clare side that have caused them plenty of problems in the past.
Since dropping down, Meath have lost out to Tipperary in the semi-final of their first IFC campaign and subsequently fell at the final hurdle in Croke Parke against Tyrone in 2018 and against Tipperary in 2019.
The one consolation in all that disappointment is that Meath did achieve promotion from NFL Div 3 in 2019 and more than held their own in Div 2 this year before lockdown brought a premature end to a campaign that saw them record excellent wins over All-Ireland SFC semi-finals Armagh as well as other senior sides Monaghan and Tyrone.
Lying in second place, with games against bottom of the table Wexford and a Kerry side already assured of their place in the Div 2 final, Meath were well placed to battle Kerry for a place in Div 1 for 2021, but Covid killed that dream.
However the NFL Div 2 season was a positive learning curve for Meath and they proved they can mix it with the best in the country, but there were also a few lessons learned, most notably in the game against Clare where the Munster side proved how big of a threat they are by snatching a draw.
Meath had led comfortably in that clash in Doonbeg, but Eamonn Murray's side took their foot off the gas and surrendered a big lead and had to settle for a draw.
After losing to Armagh, Monaghan and Tyrone (the three teams Meath beat in the league), Clare were hunting their first win of the campaign when they took on Meath last February in Doonbeg, but they trailed by two points at half-time and fell eight points behind with 15 minutes remaining as Meath struck for two goals.
However Clare clawed their way back into contention with goals from Amy Sexton and Roisin Considine before late, late points from Grainne Nolan rescued a draw for the Banner side, 3-12 each.
That slip up was a wake up call for Meath and they returned to winning ways the following week, but they also left Doonbeg knowing what a tough side Clare can be, and that was a Clare team without their talismatic attacker Niamh O'Dea.
"We know we will have it tough against Clare next Saturday. When we played them in Doonbeg earlier in the year we ended up being fortunate to come away with a draw, so they are more than capable of beating us," said manager Eamonn Murray.
"They probably could have snatched the win in the league and on that day they didn't have their class act Niamh O'Dea, but she's back now and Clare have proven that they are genuine contenders for honours too.
"We have been in this position before and we have both won and lost semi-finals so we know how important this game is. We have been there or thereabout for the last four years, but we need to get over the line now.
"While it is great to get back playing football in these tough times, it probably is fair to say that we haven't hit our top form yet.
"Obviously the conditions are a little bit different than the height of summer and that mightn't suit our style. We really struggled in the heavy rain against Down, but got out with a win and we were too good for Leitrim to get us to the semi-final.
"It's down to the last four now and all the teams are capable of winning it at this stage. We have had a few issues with injuries and uncertainty over training venues, but our focus is strong and the girls are enjoying being able to play games while so many others can't.
"We know what to expect from Clare. We have never had it easy against them and they know how to get the better of us. We have to approach this semi-final in the right frame of mind and if we can get to the levels I know we are capable off then we will have every chance," concluded the manager.
Whether the three week gap between the win over Leitrim and the semi-final clash with Clare will stand to Meath remains to be seen.
There is no doubting Meath have quality all over the field. Defensively sound with Allstar goalkeeper Monica McGuirk and teak tough defenders Katie Newe, Shauna Ennis and Emma Troy, Meath have a powerful base in midfield with Aoibin Cleary and captain Maire O'Shaugnessy.
In attack players like Emma Duggan, Stacey Grimes, Niamh Gallogly, Megan Thynne, Kelsey Nesbitt, Vikki Wall and Bridgetta Lynch can create scores from nothing.
It should be another tight contest between two evenly matched sides, but Meath's experience of four successive semi-finals should stand to them and if they can rediscover their early season form then they should book another Croke Park date in December.