‘There’s a huge buzz in the school’, says Luke Dempsey
Luke Dempsey needs no introduction in Westmeath football circles. His unprecedented achievements with Lake County teams, in underage especially, have ensured that he will never be forgotten in these parts.
And he is now just 60 minutes-plus away from what would be a huge addition to his managerial CV, with his senior football charges from St Joseph’s, Rochfortbridge set to face hat-trick chasers, Naas CBS, in next Saturday’s Bro Bosco Cup final (Tullamore, 1pm).
While many neutrals will be surprised to see St Joseph’s in their first-ever ‘A’ final, Luke felt before a ball was kicked in 2019/20 that he had a strong squad at his disposal.
“From the time I took those lads at U16 and we won the Leinster ‘B’, they were always a good group of lads. There was a strong core of lads from Coralstown/Kinnegad, and mixing in with Aaron Kelleghan of Rhode and a couple of good lads from Milltownpass. They were a really good committed group of lads – all good sportsmen, good hurlers as well. It’s a very strong competition and while I couldn’t see us getting to a Leinster final, I knew we were going to be competitive,” he opined.
The sky blue and navy-clad side won all six of their championship matches (see below) to reach the decider. Two of these were particularly close calls. Luke reflected on the narrow last-16 win against the perennially-competitive St Patrick’s, Navan, as follows: “St Pat’s have such a tradition. We beat them easily in the league, but it was an awful day for the championship meeting and we wouldn’t be physically a very big team. Pat’s put it up to us physically. We managed to get a victory, mainly down to a penalty save at the end of the first half (by Sean Martin) and then we got a goal (from Brandon Kelly) in our next attack. They are the small margins in championship football.”
Last week’s semi-final win against Coláiste Eoin, Stillorgan in Leixlip was even tighter. In this regard, Luke stated: “We had seen them play St Peter’s, Wexford, and they were a very big side as well. I was delighted with the way we started the second half of that game, and it was good that we were four points up when they got a very dubious penalty decision with time almost up. I thought we were the better team on the day.”
A few short years ago, Naas CBS were virtually an unknown quantity themselves at this elite level, but all that changed when they won back-to-back provincial titles in 2018 and 2019. “They are becoming a sort of Mel’s or Pat’s, a big traditional GAA school. There are good footballers going to that school from Wicklow just because it is looked on as a GAA school. They are bypassing other schools. They are going for three in-a-row and they have 1,200 boys as against, say, our 400. They have a great pick coming in from clubs around Naas. They are a huge side, even down the wings, and they are all right up to the U19 bracket,” according to the St Joseph’s bainisteoir.
So where will this game be won and lost? Luke opined: “We have to be able to stop their big physical players, like Alex Beirne at centre half forward, and the two midfielders, (Drew) Costello and (Eoin) Archbold, and the big full forward (Sam Morrissey). We have to make sure that they don’t get a grip on the game. If we are able to contain them, the game can be won by us moving the ball really fast, which Marist did a couple of times (in the semi-final) and were denied a couple of goals. But when Marist got sucked into a physical battle, they lost hands down.”
Luke was fulsome in his praise of his new right hand man this year. “The arrival of John Rouse from Knockbeg has been a great help. He has great football knowledge and he’s a lovely fellow. He’ll make sure that there will be a great football tradition kept on in the school when I’m gone,” Luke stated, before recalling that he started on the teaching staff of St Joseph’s in 1981, “as a 21-year-old alongside current principal, Eileen Alford”.
“There has been a huge buzz in the school in recent days. We had All-Ireland final referee, David Gough, in giving a talk as part of our Smile Week (in aid of mental awareness). He added to the buzz by talking to the senior lads. It’s been a really happy few days. The footballers are all leaders in their own right and they are going round cock-a-hoop talking about Devin Hill’s goal. Getting to the final for the first time ever is great. If we won it, it would be all the better,” Luke concluded.
All Westmeath Gaels will hope that Smile Week continues in and around St Joseph’s, Rochfortbridge for the rest of this academic year, with the Bro Bosco Cup proudly displayed in the trophy cabinet of a school which is very dedicated to a wide range of sports.
-- Gerry Buckley