Westmeath’s Luke Loughlin in action against Fermanagh’s Declan McCusker. when the sides met in the NFL in March 2018. PHOTO: JOHN MCCAULEY

Westmeath must improve to ‘Erne’ points this Sunday

Already, after just two rounds, Division 2 of the National Football League has a dog-eats-dog feel to it, with the two Colms, both ex-corner forwards par excellence, Messrs Cooper and O’Rourke, struggling to predict the likely promotion and relegation candidates on RTÉ last Sunday’s night.

Laois (surprisingly, given the defection of, inter alia, the very influential Westmeath-born Kingston brothers) top the group on three points, while Roscommon (also surprisingly, given that they would be fancied by many to quickly return to the top flight) prop up the table with just one point. The other six teams are jammed together on a brace of points each.

One of that sextet is Westmeath, and I suspect that this scribe’s view is unanimously shared by all those who travelled to Kingspan Breffni Park last Saturday night, when I suggest that Jack Cooney’s men should be sitting proudly on top with a maximum of four. When we led by six points after 50 minutes, largely due to a superb cameo from Luke Loughlin, and with an extra man to boot, a first league victory in Cavan since 1960 looked very likely.

However, Mickey Graham’s understrength team dug deep and, scoring wonderful points with what looked like every kick they took at goal - no less than 13 players in blue and white made the scoresheet overall - they clawed their way back into contention. A bundled goal deep into added-time sealed a win for the well-supported home team who, by then, had a man to spare with the late black and red cards issued respectively to the St Loman’s, Mullingar duo of Ronan O’Toole and John Heslin. It was a galling defeat, by any standards.

However, that’s history now and there are still ten more points to play for, starting with the visit to TEG Cusack Park next Sunday of the perennially-tricky Fermanagh. The Erne County’s one-point win over Roscommon last Sunday means that they are part of the aforementioned sextet on two points. Now under the management of Ryan ‘Ricey’ McMenamin, a teak-tough defender who epitomised the spirit within Tyrone’s breakthrough side of the ‘noughties’, Fermanagh did ‘a Cavan’ also last weekend by coming from six points down to win narrowly. They are likely to see next Sunday’s fixture as a defining game in this ultra-competitive division. One suspects that Jack Cooney is thinking on similar lines.

The latter alluded briefly to next Sunday’s game when he spoke to the media after the heart-breaking loss to the Breffni men last Saturday night (unaware, naturally, of what would transpire in Brewster Park the following afternoon). “The Fermanagh game is not going to be easy. This is their second year up in Division 2. They were pushing for promotion late on last year. They put in a good performance against Kildare last week and they were a point up with five or six minutes to go in normal time. We are under no illusions about the challenge ahead of us,” the Coralstown/Kinnegad man opined.

However, the Lake County bainisteoir took a lot of positives from his troops’ display, even in defeat, stating: “The lads know after tonight what we are capable of playing, and they need to be able to add a little bit more stubbornness in our back line when a team starts getting momentum against them. Sam Duncan is back in training with the group. We will be looking to see him coming back over the next week or two. Jamie Gonoud is going to be working his way back into contention. Kieran (Martin) had an X-ray on Friday and we are just waiting for the result of that to come through. He’s making steady progress. It was a big learning experience for us tonight.”

Cooney referred to the fact that “the crowd got behind Cavan” when most needed. His hurling counterpart, Shane O’Brien, also spoke of his desire to see Westmeath fans come out in bigger numbers. For the zillionth time, I ask where are the people who tormented me in the heady days of ‘noughties’ for tickets to Croke Park (often on the lines of, “now just to clarify that I want the five of us all sitting together, in the centre of the Hogan Stand, and where we will all stay dry if it’s raining”). May I take the opportunity to point out to those fair-weather fans that TEG Cusack Park is in Mullingar and is located more or less halfway between Dunnes Stores and Buckley’s Supervalu!

Support or no support, Westmeath will undoubtedly need to improve from last Saturday if they are to garner more precious league points. Four dismissals (three black and one red) in Cavan was a worry, and in the continued absence of Ger Egan and Kieran Martin, leaders need to emerge to drive the younger players on. A ‘Ricey’-managed side is sure to smell any opponents’ mental and physical weaknesses.

Fermanagh have proven to be a bogey team for Westmeath in championship football, winning all three Qualifier games, including a match at last Saturday’s venue back in the summer of 2015 after Tom Cribbin’s troops had lost the Leinster final to Dublin. Green and white-clad sides have won the majority of the league meetings, eight out of 14, with three draws and three Westmeath wins (the last of them when the sides met in Mullingar two years ago), as per what follows:

15/11/1970, Irvinestown, Fermanagh 0-12, Westmeath 1-7

10/11/1972, Cusack Park, Fermanagh 1-9, Westmeath 0-2

9/12/1973, Lisnaskea, Fermanagh 1-10, Westmeath 1-6

1/11/1984, Irvinestown, Westmeath 0-7, Fermanagh 0-7 (draw)

24/11/1985, Cusack Park, Fermanagh 1-7, Westmeath 0-6

30/11/1986, Enniskillen, Westmeath 0-11, Fermanagh 0-11 (draw)

6/12/1987, Castletown-Geoghegan, Westmeath 2-9, Fermanagh 0-8

12/2/1989, Irvinestown, Fermanagh 2-4, Westmeath 0-6

11/2/1990, Castletown-Geoghegan, Fermanagh 0-12, Westmeath 0-6

17/2/1991, Lisnaskea, Fermanagh 1-8, Westmeath 0-9

9/2/1992, Athlone, Fermanagh 0-8, Westmeath 0-6

5/3/1995, Enniskillen, Westmeath 2-5, Fermanagh 0-10

15/2/2004, Enniskillen, Westmeath 0-12, Fermanagh 1-9 (draw)

11/3/2018, TEG Cusack Park, Westmeath 0-14, Fermanagh 1-9

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