Ladies' football Review of the Year: Royal remain at top of the tree as Antrim claim junior honours in mixed year for Ulster counties

31 July 2022; Meath captain Shauna Ennis lifts the Brendan Martin Cup after the TG4 All-Ireland Ladies Football Senior Championship Final match between Kerry and Meath at Croke Park in Dublin. Photo by Brendan Moran/Sportsfile
Louise Gunn

MEATH proved they were no one-hit wonders in 2021 as they swept the boards this year claiming senior league and championship titles.

With manager Eamonn Murray stepping aside at the end of the summer having guided Meath to back-to-back Brendan Martin Cups, after also picking up the National Football League Division One cup earlier in the year, it will be interesting to see what new manager Davy Nelson can bring to the table for 2023.

Donegal were one of the teams to get closest to them, having met them twice this year – firstly in the league final and then All-Ireland Senior Championship semi-final – and Maxi Curran's side asked serious questions of the Royals, who on both occasions dug deep and showed the grit and character of true champions to answer those questions, leaving the Ulster side tasting heartbreaking defeats.

The Tir Chonaill County reached the last four stage of the All-Ireland series having recorded a superb victory over Dublin in the quarter-final on the way - losing 0-12 to 1-7 to Meath in a game they were leading at the halfway stage but a burst from the champions at the start of the second half put Donegal on the back foot and although they did level the game with 11 minutes left, Emma's Duggan's three points in the last eight minutes was enough to see Meath over the line.

Meath went on to record a convincing 3-10 to 1-8 win over Kerry in the final at the end of July to become the just the sixth county to hold both the league and championship trophies in the same year.

Donegal, despite their decent All-Ireland run ended the season without silverware as Armagh were crowned Ulster senior champions for an historic third year in-a-row and a second successive final victory over their rivals.

It was an epic final with Kelly Mallon playing a captain's role as her late, late extra-time goal gave the Orchard County a 3-17 to 2-19 win over Donegal in Clones. Victory, both at the end of normal time and extra-time looked to be Donegal's. With less than two minutes of the 60 remaining, Armagh trailed by four points, but a wayward Donegal pass was mopped up by Armagh and Aoife McCoy played in Aimee Mackin who blasted the ball to the back of the net before her captain Mallon kept her cool and with her fifth point of the day sent over the equaliser from a free to send the game to extra-time.

It was deja vu as the clock counted down the end of extra-time, Donegal with a 2-19 to 2-17 lead but again Armagh pressed high, overturned the ball, which ended up in Mallon's possession and she fired past Roisin McCafferty in the Donegal net to put her side one point ahead and they held out for perhaps their sweetest win.

Expectations were high going into the All-Ireland series and although they reached the knockout stages, Armagh bowed out to Kerry in the quarter-finals, 4-12 to 2-14, as the Kingdom robbed the Orchard for the second time this year after getting the better of them in the Division Two league final, 1-12 to 0-12, in April to deny them not just the silverware but promotion to the top table of league football.

While Donegal and Armagh were involved in the knockout stages of the All-Ireland championship, Cavan and Monaghan were embroiled in a battle against relegation to save their senior status. Cavan did, defeating Westmeath 1-13 to 1-9 in a play-off, however, Monaghan lost their status as a senior team after more than two decades, during which time they won back-to-back All-Ireland titles in 1996 and 1997 and reached nine finals. They suffered a 3-12 to 0-6 play-off defeat to Waterford and now will play intermediate championship football in 2023.

All-Ireland silverware was guaranteed in the junior competition with Antrim and Fermanagh contesting the final. A replay was needed to determine the destination of the West County Hotel Cup and Antrim made amends for their 2021 final defeat to Wicklow. The first final meeting ended 1-13 apiece in a game that needed Orlaith Prenter to keep her nerve to convert a final minutes free for Antrim to earn a replay after they had led from the sixth to the 58th minute.

In a memorable final in Croke Park, the first of a triple header on All-Ireland finals day, it had two sin bins, a disallowed goal, 20 wides but also some top-drawer scores with Fermanagh's Blaithin Bogue finishing with seven points, incredibly all from play, her team-mate Eimear Smyth with 1-3 and Prenter with five points.

The replay, scheduled for the day Fermanagh manager James Daly returned home from honeymoon, did not quite reach the exciting highs as the first time, as Antrim proved too strong, winning 3-15 to 0-11 to claim the All-Ireland title for the first time in 10 years.

Grainne McLaughlin finished with eight points while Antrim captain and player-of-the-match Cathy Carey hit 2-1 and Smyth chipped in with seven points for Fermanagh.

Antrim's All-Ireland triumph saw them add that piece of silverware to the Ulster junior title they captured back in June with a 2-13 to 1-15 win over Fermanagh in the final. Antrim trailed by seven at half-time but came roaring back in the second half to retain their crown.

It was not surprising that Antrim and Fermanagh dominated the Junior Team of the Championship taking 12 of the 15 positions and Blaithin Bogue scoped the Junior Players' Player of the Year award at the recent All Stars Awards.

That was the night Donegal's Niamh McLaughlin was named the Senior Players' Player of the Year seeing off Meath's All-Ireland winner Emma Duggan and Kerry star Louise Ni Mhuircheartaigh.

The Moville player was Donegal's stand-out player throughout the year, playing a captain's role as they reached the Division One final, the Ulster final and the All-Ireland semi-final.

She also received her first Allstar award, named at midfield, while Armagh's Aimee Mackin picked up her third, adding to her 2015 and 2017 awards.

The All-Ireland Intermediate Championship was won by Laois, who inflicted a second successive final defeat on Wexford. Ulster intermediate side Tyrone bowed out at the quarter-final stages to Wexford while Down had a tough All-Ireland campaign that ended in relegation to junior for 2023. Tyrone also won the provincial intermediate title defeating Down 2-15 to 1-10 in the final, captain Niamh O'Neill hitting 1-4 that day.

Down's league fortunes were better as they reached the semi-final stages of Division Three but lost out to Wexford, who in turn lost to Roscommon in the final, while Tyrone, who plied their trade in Division Two needed to come through a relegation play-off against Clare, winning 3-17 to 1-15, to save their second tier league status.

Monaghan made the Division Two semi-finals losing by three points, 1-14 to 1-11 against eventual winners Kerry, while Cavan, despite not making the knockout stages, did enough to ensure they stayed in Division Two for next season.

In Division Four with three Ulster teams, Fermanagh were the only ones to reach the knockout stages but lost to Limerick in the semi-final as Antrim and struggling Derry, who failed to win a single game all year in both league and championship, missed out. Division Four league honours went to Offaly.

With the inter-county season wrapped up at the beginning of August there has been plenty of time for management movement. Armagh have a new manager in place, Shane McCormick taking over from Ronan Murphy, Down see former boss Peter Lynch make a return to the managerial hot seat in the Mourne County and Derry have James McGurk at the helm.

It will be interesting to see what the next 12 months bring and the great thing is in about a month's time it all starts again.