SFC preview: who can take the ‘Castle’s crown?

Shay Murtagh Precast Senior Football Championship preview

The 2020 Westmeath senior football championship begins this weekend and it’s a very open competition, with several sides entitled to fancy their chances, writes Conor McKenna.

The competition is split into four groups of three, with the top two teams in each group advancing to the quarter finals.

Reigning champions Garrycastle are in Group A, along with near neighbours Athlone and 2019 Intermediate Champions Caulry.

Garrycastle are led by Gary Dolan and John Keane, and were deserving champions last year. They have a well-balanced team with some fantastic individual footballers and they will be there or thereabouts this time around.

In the first round this weekend they face neighbours Athlone, who have legendary Mayo footballer Liam McHale in charge of them.

McHale has an excellent reputation as a coach and the Shannonsiders have been boosted by the return of Ray Connellan. They have had some very strong underage sides in recent years, though they were very disappointing last season, losing all five of their championship games.

The Garrycastle match might come too soon for them, though I’d expect them to beat Caulry and be very hard beaten in the knock-out stages.

Caulry are just up from intermediate and survival at Senior Level would mark an excellent season, for the team coached by Sean Kelly from Pádraig Pearses in Roscommon

Group B pairs Rosemount, The Downs and Castledaly, with Rosemount and Castledaly meeting this weekend.

Rosemount have former Roscommon star Frankie Dolan at the helm, with The Downs coached by All-Ireland winning manager John O’Mahony. The highly regarded Keith Begley is in charge of Castledaly.

I’d fully expect Rosemount and The Downs to come out of that group, with the order unknown, though Castledaly beat The Downs in 2017 and came very close to Rosemount last year – so they certainly won’t roll over.

The Downs have probably had the best underage teams in Westmeath in recent years, and were close to beating St Loman’s last year in the semi-final. They would love to go one better and get to a final this time around.

Group C has St Loman’s, Tyrrellspass and Shandonagh, with the former two facing off this weekend, in a repeat of the 2013, 2016 and 2017 county finals.

Loman’s have certainly been the most consistent team in Westmeath in recent years. They claimed three successive titles from 2015 to 2017, were caught by their neighbours Mullingar Shamrocks in 2018, while they had lost a lot of players, before losing to Garrycastle last year.

Former Loman’s coach Luke Dempsey is arguably the finest manager ever to come out of Westmeath and will be missed by the Lakepoint Park club, though Offaly native Declan Kelly has a good reputation and he will hope to bring the Flanagan Cup back to Lakepoint Park.

Tyrrellspass looked to be in the driving seat in 2018, before Shamrocks beat them narrowly in the semi-final. They were crippled with injuries last year and did not do well. Led by Emmet McDonnell, they have a good enough roster of players to compete for the championship.

I’d expect Loman’s to top the group, with Tyrrellspass second. Shandonagh are a young team coached by David Scahill and Peter Leahy. They will certainly compete, but I’d expect them to just fall short.

Group D features Mullingar Shamrocks, Coralstown/Kinnegad and Killucan. Shamrocks have improved a lot since Ned Moore took over before the 2018 season.

They won that championship, before losing last year’s semi-final. Coralstown/Kinnegad competed very well with Shamrocks in last year’s quarter-final, with a few late goals, giving Shamrocks a very flattering six-point win.

Lorcan Smyth is back playing for Shamrocks after a four year stint with St Vincent’s, though Tye Adamson has transferred to St Oliver Plunketts in Dublin.

Shamrocks have a few injury doubts ahead of Friday’s clash with Coralstown/Kinnegad, who have Peter Brady from Edenderry in charge of them. They’re certainly a team to watch in future years, with a strong contingent coming through the underage ranks.

Killucan are in the same boat. They have a young team with plenty of potential. Stephen Morley is in charge there and they have some very good, strong footballers.

Shamrocks might just have enough in them to top the group, with Coralstown/Kinnegad edging Killucan to second.

I’d expect the quarter-finals to be Garrycastle vs Rosemount, St Loman’s vs Coralstown/Kinnegad, The Downs vs Athlone and Mullingar Shamrocks vs Tyrrellspass.

I’d fancy Garrycastle and Loman’s to meet in one semi, with Athlone and Shamrocks in the other.

I think the winner of the Garrycastle/Loman’s game, if it comes to it, will win a championship, overcoming Shamrocks in the final.

I’m going to go with Garrycastle to win two-in-a-row, as they have been consistently very strong over the last two years.

My long shot would be Athlone, who defeated Shamrocks in 2016 and 2017 and came very close to beating them last year.