O'Sullivan's fond farewell to Meath Ladies
While admitting there is never truly a right time to hang up your boots, Meath’s Niamh O’Sullivan has said she is happy with her decision to retire from inter-county football, writes Daire Walsh.
A senior debutant as a teenager back in 2008, the Dunshaughlin native previously stepped away from the Royal panel for a number of years before returning to the fold in 2016.
Meath dropped down from the All-Ireland senior football championship at the end of her comeback year, only to eventually reclaim a top-tier spot with an All-Ireland intermediate success in 2020.
In addition to claiming Div 2 Two and Div 1 National Football crowns in the same years, O’Sullivan was a pivotal figure as Meath secured back-to-back All-Ireland SFC titles in 2021 and 2022 with Eamonn Murray at the helm.
Yet last year’s Brendan Martin Cup campaign ended in a quarter-final defeat to Kerry and this proved to be her final game for the Royal County.
“There’s never really a right time to hang up the boots. You’re always kind of asking yourself ‘am I doing the right thing?’ If I was a bit different and maybe more emotional, I probably would be questioning my decision, but there’s serious talent coming through on that team and my old legs were never going to last forever with these young girls coming up,” O’Sullivan explained.
“It has been a magical few years. Would I have ever thought that I’d have three All-Ireland medals in my back pocket? Absolutely not. I always wanted to just play in Croke Park. It didn’t matter if we’d won, lost or drawn in Croke Park, I just wanted to be able to say I played in Croke Park.
“To have been able to play there on numerous occasions has been just an absolute honour. It has just been incredible and I’m very lucky I’ve a supportive family. Obviously it’s a sad decision, but as I keep saying, it’s a very happy one.”
Having announced her retirement on the same weekend, O’Sullivan was in Pairc Tailteann on Sunday 28th January to see Meath overcome Dublin in the second round of this year’s NFL top division. At half-time in this game - with the Royals in the lead on a scoreline of 2-3 to 0-3 - O’Sullivan was introduced to the sizeable crowd at the Navan venue.
Although it was a touch surreal for the St Seachnall’s NS primary school teacher to be attending the game as a mere spectator, it was something that she enjoyed nonetheless.
O’Sullivan had spoken to new Meath manager Shane McCormack in advance of the new season and while he couldn't persuade her to remain on for another year, his plans for the team have left her excited for the year ahead.
“I didn’t know it was happening (her introduction to the crowd)! It was a nice surprise. Very happy moments, probably surreal that I won’t be in a green jersey again. Even going to the game, it felt really weird.
"I didn’t know how my emotions would be when I got there, but I was very happy and I was delighted that I went and showed support for the girls.
"It was just weird being in the stand, because I’d be so used to just being on the pitch warming up there, but it was great to see it from the outside in. The new ideas that Shane has brought in as the manager and the different warm-up style he has introduced to the team now.
"It was really exciting, it was edge-of-the-seat stuff. I wasn’t sure what way it was going to go, but I really enjoyed it.”
Though O’Sullivan has had many memorable moments in a Meath jersey — she was captain when they reached the All-Ireland intermediate final in 2018 and won a All Star in 2021 — it is very difficult to top the historic All-Ireland senior triumph against provincial rivals Dublin on 5th September 2021.
Coming face-to-face with a Jackies side that were looking to seal a fifth title in succession, O’Sullivan registered an impressive haul of three points as the Royals defied the odds to get their hands on the Brendan Martin Cup for the very first time.
“We were just very driven. We didn’t hear outside noise, we ignored any outside noise. We just trained nice and quietly amongst ourselves. The camp was good, everyone was fit and healthy,” O’Sullivan recalled of that groundbreaking win.
“We were just buzzing to get into Croke Park and I think we just had so much energy that we unleashed it all that day. Everything just worked for us and we knew when we were getting ahead in the game that we weren’t going to let it slip and we just drove home.
“I know it was probably a nervy second half, Dublin were getting a foothold in the game, but the subs that came on really drove it home. That was a massive part of our squad. It was hard for those girls because obviously they missed out on a starting 15 place, but they were the girls that really brought us over the line in a lot of games.”
Despite no longer being a part of the inter-county scene, O’Sullivan’s time in the game hasn’t completely come to an end. She scored six points last October as Dunshaughlin Royal Gaels were crowned Meath senior football championship winners with an emphatic final victory over St Peter’s Dunboyne and though O’Sullivan, who got married late last year, isn’t back training with her local club yet, she has every intention of donning their colours in 2024.
“I’ll definitely play with my club. I was talking to our manager Shane Farrelly and in fairness he has given me extra time off. I’ll hopefully be back with club in maybe March or April then. Because we’ve never had this time off for the last couple of years playing with Meath. We’ve gotten to All-Ireland finals and we’d only have a week off and you’d be back into your club,” O’Sullivan added.
“I just felt when I could take the time now, I’m going to take it. I’m just enjoying the time, enjoying my evenings to myself and being able to catch up with friends. I’ll definitely be togging out with my club for another few years anyway.”