Difficult away trips for hurlers and footballers next Sunday
Yours truly was in Croke Park as a neutral (don’t tell my longtime Dublin lady friend that!) last Saturday evening for a rare sighting of the Metropolitans in Division 2 action against Kildare, probably the second best team in Leinster in recent years.
Of course, being labelled ‘the second best team in Leinster’ is akin to calling Lionel Messi’s brother ‘the second best footballer in the Messi family’, such is the gulf between the men in sky blue and navy and the rest of the pack in the alleged ‘race’ for the Delaney Cup.
It wasn’t always like that, of course, and their 1996 to 2010 (inclusive) Sam famine saw Westmeath regularly able to go toe-to-toe with Dublin.
Indeed, brief highlights of one of Westmeath’s two noteworthy competitive victories during that period were flashed up on the giant screen at GAA headquarters on Saturday - a great win in a Division 2 final in Navan almost 15 years ago (the understrength Dubs’ last game in the second tier). A very good side in maroon and white under the tutelage of Tomás Ó Flatharta deservedly won that encounter and it was a great lift to watch it 21 hours before the Division 3 opener against Cavan.
The aforementioned Kerry man was an interested spectator in TEG Cusack Park the following day, and he is bound – like the rest of us – to have been very disappointed with his old charges who were well beaten (if only by three points on the all-important scoreboard) by Cavan, who deservedly avenged last year’s inaugural Tailteann Cup final loss.
Two of Tomás’ best players, Dessie Dolan and John Keane, are the main men now in the Westmeath management team, ironically joined by one of Dublin’s high-powered absentees in Páirc Tailteann in 2008, Jason ‘Jayo’ Sherlock.
On reflection, 2008 was a very progressive year for the Westmeath senior footballers, who had a fine championship odyssey to follow on from the league success. A remarkable five-timer was achieved with competitive wins against all of the county’s five neighbours – Longford and Offaly in the Leinster SFC, and Cavan, Roscommon and Meath in the NFL.
The secondary competition provides guaranteed matches against the first three of those to start the 2023 campaign, but there will no clean sweep after that very disappointing loss to the Breffni men in Mullingar last Sunday.
One suspects that an insipid first-half display – the introduction of Luke Loughlin and Lorcan Dolan hugely boosted Westmeath’s attacking prowess in the second moiety – may well have discouraged some supporters to make the short trip to Longford for the second local derby next Sunday.
Glennon Bros Pearse Park will host a game between two teams urgently in need of points after opening day defeats, Paddy Christie’s men having surprisingly been decisively beaten by Fermanagh in Ederney last Saturday night.
There is very little margin for error from now on for any team with promotion hopes, and while Dessie Dolan and co know that Sam Maguire Cup football is assured irrespective of how Division 3 pans out, a Westmeath side with a number of key men now over 30 will not fancy third tier football again in 2024. This – at best, it has to be said with enormous apprehension – will look very likely if at least a share of the spoils is not secured next Sunday (throw-in 2pm).
Around the same time in the ‘other’ Cusack Park, Joe Fortune’s hurlers open their Division 1 campaign with a daunting assignment against Clare. Nobody expects Westmeath to win in Ennis, or in Páirc Uí Chaoimh down the line, and realistically not in ‘our own’ Cusack Park when Wexford (despite last year’s superb draw in the Leinster SHC), Limerick and Galway come to town in that order in the weeks ahead.
However, what will be expected is a continuance of the fine form shown as the months went by in 2022, culminating in promotion from Division 2A and a comfortable retention of a much-treasured slot in the Bob O’Keeffe Cup. One win – against Antrim in Abbotstown – from three recent Walsh Cup games was a reasonable return, albeit with no green flags raised. A certain amount of goals will undoubtedly be needed to remain competitive in the upcoming round robin games, starting with Clare next Sunday.
The Banner County and the Lake County have met 14 times in the National Hurling League between 1945 and 2011, and it has been a whitewash for maroon and white-clad outfits, despite a few very honourable displays by the underdogs.
Indeed, the last two trips to Ennis have produced very respectable displays by the visitors, specifically Clare 0-11 Westmeath 0-9, in 1994 (a year before Ger Loughnane’s men came from nowhere to win the Liam MacCarthy Cup), and Clare 4-19 Westmeath 3-15, in 2010.
However, there is an inevitability about Brian Lohan’s men taking full points next weekend, especially given the absence of the injured Niall Mitchell, a visiting player who would have demanded a lot of attention from the Clare rearguard. There is unlikely to be many away supporters in Ennis, but all that they will hope for is total commitment to the cause for 70-plus minutes and see where that takes Fortune’s troops.
Changing of the guard
This scribe’s freelance role with quite a number of newspapers for the past decade and-a-half has worked particularly well for both the Westmeath Examiner and myself. While my weekly dealings with the in-house sports editor are invariably very brief, a good ‘working’ relationship is still essential. This was the case with John FitzSimons, and it has also been so for over a decade with Paul Hughes. The latter – around the same age as when yours truly did – is changing his career path very shortly, and I welcome the opportunity to sincerely wish him well as he moves from Blackhall Place to Kildare St. Also, I look forward to a similar rapport with Damien Maher (my third - and last! - sports editor) when he comes on board.