Huge tests for both senior teams this weekend
By Gerry Buckley
The appalling news of the sudden death of Offaly senior football manager Liam Kearns has hit all Gaels and made us echo the apt words of Donal Óg Cusack last Sunday night: "Our games are important, but our people are even more important.”
This shocked columnist can only hope that Liam's family will get some comfort from the countless prayers being said around Ireland for a man with an excellent managerial CV at perhaps a level not fully appreciated by the perennially successful counties. But, more importantly, a man with a wife and two daughters. May he rest in peace.
Life goes on, however, and with it the bordering on OTT demands made of our amateur footballers and hurlers whose flood of spring games continues apace. Dessie Dolan's men travel to Ederney, a venue hitherto-unknown in these parts, for a make-or-break Division 3 football clash on Saturday.
Along with Down and the aforementioned Offaly, the Lake County and Erne County are fighting a battle to join Cavan in Division 2 next year. In a nutshell, the loser in Ederney seems sure to be in the third tier in 2024. So, a titanic battle will surely take place in the new/temporary home of Fermanagh GAA.
Remarkably, Westmeath have three of the Six Counties in their group this campaign (as well as another Ulster county, as already mentioned, Cavan). Westmeath's experiences in recent weeks against the first two were starkly contrasting - a gut-wrenching two-point loss to Down in Newry after a splendid display in the first half, and an unexpected annihilation of Antrim in TEG Cusack Park last Sunday week.
The game in Ederney is absolutely certain to be much more like former rather than the latter. The freedom afforded to many marquee players in maroon and white by their saffron and white-clad opponents was mind-boggling. The men in green and white will not be as accommodating on Saturday (throw-in 3pm).
Westmeath's record against Fermanagh in the championship makes for dismal reading, three defeats in three 'back door' contests. The National League matches are peculiar for the large amount of draws - four out of 16. The last of these came on March 20 last year in Mullingar, both teams regretting the inability to take maximum points. In the home team's case, a galling missed goal chance was the main talking point, while the visitors seemed to have very valid claims regarding a disallowed 'point' which well-positioned fans - from both counties! - were adamant should have counted.
The four games this millennium between the two counties, who with Wicklow shared the dubious distinction of never having won a provincial senior championship pre-2004 (thanks again Páidí for helping to break that duck) resulted as follows:
15/2/2004, Enniskillen, Westmeath 0-12 Fermanagh 1-9 (draw)
11/3/2018, TEG Cusack Park, Westmeath 0-14 Fermanagh 1-9
9/2/2020, TEG Cusack Park, Westmeath 0-10 Fermanagh 0-8
20/3/2022, TEG Cusack Park, Westmeath 1-9 Fermanagh 0-12 (draw - details hereunder)
Westmeath: Jason Daly; Jack Smith, Kevin Maguire, Nigel Harte; David Giles, David Lynch (1-0), Jamie Gonoud; Sam Duncan, Jonathan Lynam; Ray Connellan, Ronan O’Toole (0-2), Sam McCartan (0-1); Luke Loughlin (0-1), John Heslin (0-3, three frees), Alex Gardiner (0-2). Subs: Ronan Wallace for Giles (42 mins), Lorcan Dolan for Gardiner (50 mins), Fola Ayorinde for Duncan (55 mins), Kieran Martin for Lynam (63 mins), TJ Cox for Loughlin (67 mins).
Fermanagh: Sean McNally; Richard O’Callaghan, Jonny Cassidy, Luke Flanagan; Aidan Breen, James McMahon, Ryan Lyons (0-1); Ryan Jones, Brandon Horan; Ciaran Corrigan (0-3, one mark), Darragh McGurn (0-1), Josh Largo Ellis; Garvan Jones (0-1, free), Conall Jones, Sean Quigley (0-6, three frees, one ‘45’). Subs: Gary McKenna for C Jones (58 mins), Danny Leonard for G Jones (58 mins).
The home game against Henry Shefflin's Galway has a totally different vibe. Back in November 1986, Westmeath's National Hurling League game against the Tribesmen produced one of the greatest shocks in the competition in many years in Loughrea when the visitors beat a very high-profile Galway side by a goal. But the likelihood of a similar result is virtually negligible in 2023, particularly so close to the Leinster championship, a competition where the two maroon-wearers will again go head-to-head in TEG Cusack Park on May 6. Incidentally, I think I was correct when asked in January what counties are already guaranteed Liam MacCarthy and Sam Maguire action this year when I opined Galway and Westmeath.
Despite a poor first-half performance, there was much to admire in the way that Joe Fortune's charges refused to throw in the towel against the top dogs in the land for the past half a decade when Limerick threatened to massacre the home team last Sunday in Mullingar. To have any chance of being even semi-competitive in Division 1A, Westmeath need to be picking from a full deck and, sadly, a third of the first choice XV did not start against the Treaty men.
All any fan can ask of the side they support is to die with their boots on, and Fortune's men always tick that box. In truth, the relegation play-off against Laois a week later is infinitely more important in terms of Westmeath's future, but another brave showing against the Galwegians would be ideal preparation for same.
The two games since the Loughrea shock in 1986 make for fairly unpleasant reading:
26/1/2020, Galway, Galway 1-24 Westmeath 0-10
8/5/2021, TEG Cusack Park, Galway 5-34 Westmeath 1-16 [details hereunder]
Scorers - Galway: E Niland 0-13 (10f), C Cooney 1-5 (0-1 pen), N Burke 1-4, J Mannion 1-3, B Concannon 1-1, C Whelan 1-0, S Cooney, C Mannion and F Burke (1 s/l) 0-2 each, A Harte and J Coen 0-1 each. Westmeath: N O’Brien 0-11 (10f), N Mitchell 1-0, C Doyle 0-2, D Glennon, J Boyle and S Williams 0-1 each.
Galway: Eanna Murphy; Sean Loftus, Gearóid McInerney, Jack Fitzpatrick; Aidan Harte, Shane Cooney, Fintan Burke; Johnny Coen, Cathal Mannion; Conor Cooney, Evan Niland, Brian Concannon; Jarlath Mannion, Niall Burke, Conor Whelan. Subs used: Darren Morrissey for Fitzpatrick (22), TJ Brennan for Harte (44), Joseph Cooney for Concannon (44), Diarmuid Kilcommins for C Mannion (52), Kevin Cooney for Whelan (52), Jason Flynn for Niland (56), Declan Cronin for Loftus (56).
Westmeath: Eoin Skelly; Darragh Egerton, Tommy Doyle, Conor Shaw; Alan Cox, Aaron Craig, Derek McNicholas; Robbie Greville, Davy Glennon; Joey Boyle, Ciaran Doyle, Jack Galvin; Niall O’Brien, Darragh Clinton, Shane Williams. Subs used: Niall Mitchell (1-0) for Galvin (21), Tommy Gallagher for Cox (h-t), Josh Coll for Clinton (42), Kevin Regan for McNicholas (50), Shane Clavin for Greville (62).