Westmeath senior football manager Tom Cribbin has high hopes for some of the younger, less experienced players who featured for Westmeath towards the end of last year in challenge matches.
But when the Lake County take to the field to begin their O’Byrne Cup campaign against Louth (Sunday, TEG Cusack Park, 2pm), there promises to be a more familiar look to the starting line-up, as several of the more established contingent are due back in the fold.
And Cribbin said that, while Westmeath are looking to put in a good O’Byrne Cup campaign the priority, for now, is ensuring they are fully ready to tackle the challenge of trying to secure promotion from Division 4 of the Allianz National Football League.
“We had a few challenge matches and got a chance to have a look at a few new players, some of whom are untried at inter-county level, so from that perspective it was good and the performances of certain individuals showed lots of potential for the future,” Cribbin said.
“In that regard, I think Westmeath are doing okay; I feel there’s a fair amount of talent coming through. But for some of them the step-up to inter-county training, getting in tune with the strength and conditioning required, and the enormous commitment it takes, can be a bit of a strain.
“So, those lads will be looked after carefully. But yes, I’ve been encouraged by some of those involved towards the latter part of 2016.”
Included in a raft of players brought in to the fold before the New Year were plenty from the south of the county including Tubberclair’s Kevin Fagan, Tang’s John Rock, Castledaly’s Lorcan Dolan, Garrycastle’s Alex Gardiner and Athlone’s Jordan Marshment, while Athlone’s Alan Gaughan also returned to the inter-county picture having been largely committed to rugby in recent years. Former minor star Luke Loughlin (The Downs) also returns to action after a stint in New York.
But Cribbin said that the team for Sunday is unlikely to include too many unfamiliar names.
“We are going to have a lot of the more experienced fellows back and that’s going to be huge for us,” he said.
“The likes of John Heslin, Paul Sharry, Killian Daly, David Lynch, Callum McCormack, Denis Glennon, Frank Boyle, Shane Dempsey (who returns to the fold having missed last year’s Championship while in the United States) should all have some involvement on Sunday.
“Cormac Boyle has committed to the football for the year and you have Kelvin Reilly to come back in, too. So, there’s lots of experience there to call on, and you’d have to say that the only way to help the younger lads along is by giving them game-time here and there alongside a strong core of experienced inter-county players, which wasn’t really possible to do before the New Year.
“But I’m happy enough with the way the panel looks for the moment and looking forward to taking on Louth,” added Cribbin, whose team finds itself in Division 4 of the League this year after three consecutive relegations.
It also looks very likely that Ger Egan will be available to Cribbin in the coming weeks having come through a bout of rehabilitation to an injured shoulder, though Sunday’s match might come too soon for the Tyrrellspass star.
“Look, the League has to be our complete focus for the moment,” said the Clane native, who has taken Westmeath to back-to-back Leinster SFC finals,” he added.
“We are going for promotion 100 per cent and any thoughts about the Championship have to be put on hold until later in the year. In any case, there will be a nine-week break between the end of the League and the start of the Championship, and it’s in that period that most your Championship preparation will be carried out.
“But we need everyone flying fit and raring to go for the League. We cannot afford any early slip-ups, like last year, that leave you chasing the rest. I expect Wexford and possibly Limerick to be strong in Division 4 and if you take your eye off the ball for a second against any of the other teams, then you’re going to have a problem.
“I would imagine a lot of teams in Division 4 will play quite defensively against us and our lads will need to show good patience and maturity in those matches, and that’s where you hope the experiences of the last couple of years will stand them in good stead.”
So, while the early season emphasis is clearly placed on getting Westmeath up the NFL pyramid as soon as possible, this weekend will provide local Gaels with their first real opportunity to run the rule over Cribbin’s charges ahead of the more important stuff in the coming months.
Also in Westmeath’s group in the O’Byrne Cup are Carlow, who Westmeath will play on Wednesday, January 11 (Netwatch Cullen Park) and NUI Maynooth, who travel to Mullingar on Sunday, January 15.