Westmeath’s U20 football squad celebrating after their penalty shoot-out victory over Longford in Pearse Park on Thursday evening.

‘There was a great bit of fight in us’ – Damien Gavin

There was a sense of déjà vu for Westmeath U20 football manager Damien Gavin in Longford last Thursday night, but on this occasion the outcome of a dramatic penalty shootout in Glennon Bros Pearse Park was infinitely more satisfying than had been the case in Portlaoise some 17 months ago in pre-Covid times.

At the outset, Gavin stated: “We lost last year on penalties (to Laois), so we know how Longford feel. It’s not an ideal way to finish a game. But they’re the rules. In some ways, we were lucky to be still in it. In other ways, we might have kicked on in the second half of normal time when we went four points up. We sat back and Longford got back into it. We knew it was going to be a dogfight tonight.”

He continued: “I thought the first half was very scrappy, which is natural enough in a game like this. The second half opened up a bit and we were probably the better team, but they took over and we were lucky to come back into it. They are a good side and a big side with lots of decent players. They pressed our kick-outs, so everything was going long. It was down to breaking ball and, in fairness, we were better under the breaking ball than we were against Kildare.”

As had been the case in Newbridge a week earlier, maroon and white-clad subs contributed handsomely to the win. In this regard, the 1995 Tom Markham Cup recipient opined with a smile: “Senan (Baker), who is not 18 till next week, came on and did very well. He buried the ball in the top corner with his first touch. We were roaring at him to fist it over! Jordan (McDonnell), Liam Moran and Kehn Ruzzle came on and they all did well. Also, Jack Torpey came back in extra-time and did well. There was a great bit of fight in us. That’s the most important thing you can have in any team. If you have a bit of spirit and a bit of fight in you, you always have a chance.”

Already a Westmeath senior with championship experience against Dublin last November behind him, Brandon Kelly excelled in Longford. His manager agreed, as follows: “Brandon needed the game last week. It was probably his first full game in nine months. Once we got the ball into him, he was dangerous every time. That game will bring Brandon on. It will bring them all on really. It’s such a short season, you don’t get to know lads as well as you would normally, and you have to take a chance on some things.”

When it was put to the winning bainisteoir that improvement would be needed for the visit of Offaly to Mullingar on Thursday, Gavin was typically forthright: “Absolutely. We are always trying to improve. We keep drumming that into them. If you think you are the perfect footballer at this stage, you are in bother. We’ll have to improve an awful lot when we play Offaly. The lads who started are looking over their shoulders. We genuinely have huge difficulty even picking the 24. We have lads outside the 24 who would be on most squads. The competition for places is driving lads on. Nobody is bigger than the team.”

“Tonight was a great local derby, and the game against Offaly will be no different. There will probably be only a kick of a ball in it again, but it’s great to be there,” he concluded.