Given that Ballyboden is a football stronghold in Dublin, and the expectation that the Metropolitans would clinically dispose of Westmeath’s challenge in Croke Park some six hours later, it is perfectly understandable why Fr Flor O’Callaghan looked quite sheepish when he asked, “By any chance, have we anybody from Westmeath with us today?”, as he wrapped up last Sunday week’s 10 o’clock Mass in Our Lady of Good Counsel church.
Yours truly’s right arm was up in a flash, no sheepishness whatsoever displayed. As a consequence, the affable parish priest had a few quiet words with me as the congregation, some of whom were already decked out in sky blue and navy, filed out of the chapel. “I’m a Kerryman, I hope ye rattle those Dubs,” the affable clergyman whispered. “Rattle them,” says I, adding a Millie Walsh-like roar, “sure we’re going to beat them!”
My career as a clairvoyant ended at roughly 4.28 pm on June 25, 2017, when Dean Rock belatedly raised the Dubs’ first green flag at GAA headquarters. And speaking of green flags, much of the pre-match talk was of Westmeath’s need to score goal(s). I was fortunate to witness the only two we had scored against Dublin in the previous 13 championship meetings – Tommy Dolan in Tullamore in 1967 (I was already obsessed with the maroon and white jersey, aged just ten) and Michael Ennis in Jones’ Road 41 years later (the Ballinagore man should have been an All Star that year).
Now, I am not doubting readers’ ability to rhyme off their ‘three-times’ or ‘ten-times’ tables, but had we beaten Stephen Cluxton on ten occasions nine days ago, we would still have lost by a point. Can’t you just picture the newscaster on some obscure radio station frantically trying to calculate who had won in a game which ended, Dublin 4-29 Westmeath 10-10?
However, that is the past. Next Saturday in TEG Cusack Park at 7pm is the future. When I spoke to Tom Cribbin on Sunday morning, he confirmed that his troops were very keen to make amends for the hammering by Dublin in the first round Qualifier match at home to Armagh next Saturday evening.
The Clane man stated: “The lads were very disappointed obviously with the display against Dublin. They know themselves that they are better than that. They have to try and put a bit of respect on their season some way. They feel they really owe it to the people of Westmeath next Saturday.
“Armagh is a good game for us. They are a Division 3 side. The only team that has beaten us in Leinster in the last three years is Dublin. In the same period, Armagh have only won two championship matches, both in the ‘back door’, against Wicklow in 2015 and Fermanagh the weekend before last.
“We should have no fear whatsoever of Armagh. The only thing is that we are coming in after a bad performance and they are coming in after a win. We felt we were better than in our previous two years, but Dublin were obviously at a different level.”
Much has been said and written about Westmeath’s disastrous kick-out strategy in Croke Park. In this regard, Cribbin opined: “We had worked very hard before the Dublin game trying short kick-outs, but on the day Dublin just swamped us. This is a very special Dublin team and people have to respect that.
“There was a backlash in them because of what was going on about Diarmuid Connolly and they felt insulted with some of the stuff said about the Carlow game. We could have done something similar to Carlow and decided to park 12 lads behind the ball, but we had to have a go.
“Dublin pushed up high in every position and made life very difficult for us. They have the pace to do that. I’m not too sure that many other counties in the country can do that. We thought we could compete better but now realise we have a lot more work to do.”
When queried about possible alterations in the team, the manager replied: “We probably think there will be two to three changes, but that’s not blaming any individuals in particular for the Dublin defeat. That was a collective, from management down. If you try to take them on, Dublin have so much pace everywhere.
“It’s not all down to fitness, it’s down to the pace that each individual has. If you look at the subs they were bringing on, they were bringing on lads with All-Ireland medals in their pockets. We were bringing on young lads, some of them only with us for the first year.”
I also attended 9am Mass in Ballyboden last Monday morning week. The Augustinians were unavoidably absent, so Fr Flor wasn’t around. Had he been, I would have asked him to pray for our hurlers who had just drawn Tipperary away in the Qualifiers. Oh me of little (hurling) faith, as Aonghus Clarke and co went on to perform marvellously well five days later, emerging with their dignity very much intact from Semple Stadium.
The absolute minimum requirement for our footballers next Saturday evening in TEG Cusack Park is to play with the same spirit and pride as we saw three days ago by maroon and white-clad men in Thurles.
Dignity must be restored.