‘It has been difficult but we saw a lot of people coming out of homelessness, which was great’

ALL-IRELAND FINALS being played the weekend before Christmas sums up this crazy year.

It’s something different, to say the least. And the Meath ladies footballers will hope that a very different occasion leads to a different result.

Meath captain Máire O’Shaughnessy.

Source: Seb Daly/SPORTSFILE

Sunday’s intermediate decider against Westmeath will be their third in-a-row, and the challenge is to turn back-to-back decider defeats at the hands of Tyrone and Tipperary respectively into a long-awaited Croke Park success.

This is a clean slate, though, and captain Máire O’Shaughnessy makes that clear from the outset, with their one focus getting over the line in 2020.

“It’s not really a follow-on from the last two years,” she says, having also skippered the side last season. “There’s new players and members of management there this year that haven’t been in other years. The set-up is a little bit different.

“I definitely think the talk is in the media a lot more, the third time lucky tagline as well. Each year we’ve gone out, and it has been a different mix of players. You’re facing a different team with different challenges.

“I don’t think anyone’s too caught up on the fact that it’s our third time back. We’re just focusing on ourselves and trying to correct the things that weren’t good enough to get us over the line the past few years.”

And having led her high-flying Royals charges through their strangest season yet, O’Shaughnessy is nothing but appreciative for the position they now find themselves in. 

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Footbal, and all that goes with, through the pandemic has taken quite a bit of getting used to, but the Donaghmore-Ashbourne midfielder wouldn’t change it for the world.

“We really have been privileged to be able to play our games and and to go out and represent our county,” she nods, “so with that comes a bit of responsibility when we’re not on the pitch, not training and playing games.

“It a bit of sacrifice in our in our personal lives but it’s been worth it. Football has been a welcome distraction from all that’s been going on, and to have an All-Ireland final to think of, at Christmas, it’s very exciting.

“It’s a real novelty driving to training and listening to Christmas songs!

Dejection after the 2018 final.

Source: Tommy Dickson/INPHO

“To have something really positive for our families to focus on as well is a privilege. It’s been a tough year and Christmas isn’t always the happiest time for people either, so it’s great coming to the end of the year that there’s something positive and exciting to focus on and you can really feel that around. It’s great to be able to provide that excitement.”

O’Shaughnessy speaks with a sense of perspective, and from experience, having become well accustomed to providing a beacon of hope in the darkness through her day job.

She’s worked with Dublin’s Simon Community for over four years now, a charity at the forefront of the fight to prevent and address homelessness in the capital, Kildare, Wicklow, Meath, Louth, Cavan and Monaghan. From emergency work in hostels with the rough sleeper team to providing help in the supported housing area and prevention, she’s been quite busy.

Now juggling work with evening studies in primary school teaching after returning to college, O’Shaughnessy has moved to a different section of work as she prepares to embark on a new career in February. 

While 2020 has been tough for everyone, the 27-year-old has seen first-hand just how much more difficult it has been for certain people. While stating that she’s “not necessarily on the front line,” the work she’s done over the past few months has certainly been admirable.

“I work in a visiting support service, so it’s people who have come from homelessness and are now in independent living,” she explains. “I suppose they’re not high support needs.

“A lot of the homeless accommodation is shared accommodation. Back in April, following the government guidelines, they needed to get people in their own rooms and not living together. There were workers relocated to hostels to work there, so I went to a hostel for the month of April to help the staff there.

“I was out working with the people for a month. It has been difficult but I think the organisations, including obviously Dublin Simon, have done great work in trying to facilitate it.

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Tackling Tipperary’s Aisling McCarthy with Orlaith Duff last year.

Source: Oisin Keniry/INPHO

“In the area that I work in, it’s people coming out of homelessness into independent living, and we had a massive increase of people coming from homeless accommodation into their own houses and apartments, so we saw a lot of people coming out of homelessness during that time, which was great.”

Listening to her speak hammers home just how unimportant football is in the grand scheme of things, but as Liverpool boss Jurgen Klopp famously said earlier this year, it’s the most important of the least important things. O’Shaughnessy would certainly agree. 

It’s an outlet and team is family, this tight-knit bunch certainly proving that point through lockdown when visits to her home house were ruled out.

While O’Shaughnessy’s older sister Caitriona isn’t involved this year, there’s two sets of sisters in the Walls, Vikki and Sarah, and the Byrnes, Kate and Orla.

The return of 2018 captain Niamh O’Sullivan, among others, has also come as a “massive boost” after a stint in Australia and a cruciate injury, and Meath, like their fellow finalists, are in deadly goal-scoring form, best seen in their 4-13 to 0-4 semi-final win over Clare — a huge statement of intent.

While Westmeath played Division 1 football earlier this year and they’re just down from the senior ranks, O’Shaughnessy accepts that that may give them a slight edge.

But she feels their own performances in Division 2 have delivered confidence and belief that they can compete against senior teams.

That will become a reality for one of the neighbouring counties, who last met competitively in the Leinster senior championship in 2016, with promotion the big prize on the line alongside the Mary Quinn Memorial Cup on Sunday.

The winners will provide welcome competition for Dublin in the provincial senior championship in 2021, which is a huge positive given the Sky Blues were alone in 2020.

“The intermediate grade is full of Leinster teams and the fact that there’s two of them now in the final does mean that one will go up. Everyone in intermediate wants to get up to senior and to be playing the top teams.

O’Shaughnessy at the Hill of Tara.

Source: Seb Daly/SPORTSFILE

“I don’t think it will be too long before there are a couple of teams up in the senior grade in Leinster. You’d be hoping that the team that does go up this year will be really looking forward to a championship with Dublin next year.

“The more teams up at the senior level the better it is for the sport and for your team as well. Every team wants to be playing at the highest grade and playing the best teams in the country.”

And while Dublin’s dominance is the furthest thing from her mind right now, O’Shaughnessy asked about it as the interview winds down and a brief look to the potential future is a nice note to finish on.

“Look, I think everyone wants to be the team that can knock the Dublins off their pedestal, it won’t be an easy task but I suppose that’s what everyone’s striving towards,” she concludes.

“If we did get up to senior, we’d like to think that we could give it a good go perhaps, but that’s not a thought we’ll be having this week or next. It’s down the line.”

The line they’re hell-bent on getting over first comes into sight at 1.15pm on Sunday.

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