Westmeath goalkeeper Noel Conaty celebrates with is mam, Sally, following Westmeath’s sensational victory over Wexford at Chadwick’s Wexford Park last Sunday.

Ulster says ‘dó’ next weekend

Apologies at the outset for the corny column headline, but I had it planned since the Sam Maguire Cup draw pitted our footballers against the Ulster runners-up on the same weekend that our hurlers’ Liam MacCarthy Cup participation for 2024 will be decided by a game against Antrim.

There is only one place to start in this week’s ramblings, however, and that is to turn back the clock two days to Chadwick’s Wexford Park and arguably the greatest 43-minute display by a Lake County hurling team in this scribe’s lifetime. Ironically, it had followed one of the limpest 37-minute showings imaginable.

Indeed, the neatest way to sum up a madcap afternoon in the sunny south-east is to confess that I turned to my good friend, Midlands Radio 3 match commentator Gerry Russell, at half-time and said: “Please don’t involve me in the second half, as I genuinely fear I will say something that will get me in bother. After all, I have to face people on the streets of Mullingar.” The final minutes of the match are almost a blur, and I wasn’t able to contribute due to a pounding heart and head. All I will say now is: “Well done lads, and let’s finish the job next Sunday.”

Both of this scribe’s two lengthy careers deal in bottom lines, and the bottom line is that Joe Fortune’s talented and committed troops have given themselves a fantastic lifeline in the Bob O’Keeffe Cup, with a third successive participation in the Leinster championship firmly in their own hands when Antrim visit TEG Cusack Park next Sunday (throw-in 2pm).

There are a number of permutations involved in the synchronized games in Mullingar and Wexford, one of which would mean an ignominious relegation for the once-mighty Model County. But that is their issue. Westmeath’s is to at least secure a draw against Darren Gleeson’s formidable outfit whose focus on a must-win last game was not altered by the sensational happenings in the sunny south-east, except perhaps to increase that focus!

Frankly, a trip to Corrigan Park or, heaven forbid, further north (you could almost see Scotland in some of the venues I have been to for hurling matches against the Glensmen) would hugely reduce the chances of the men in maroon and white eking out a win which the seldom-wrong bookmakers feel is unlikely. All that home fans – and let’s hope that, for a change, a considerable number turn up to acknowledge the heroics of two days ago – can ask for is a repetition of the magnificent second half display which we were privileged to witness in Wexford.

Westmeath have won five and lost seven of the previous 12 championship clashes (see below). The first of these in 1975, as thoroughly enjoyed by this hirsute teenager at the time, was a classic and merited special praise from the prince of sports writers, the late and truly great Con Houlihan, the following day in his must-read Evening Press column. Westmeath hurling was in the headlines of national newspapers again 48 years and 17 days later on May 21, 2023. We all crave more positivity in next Monday’s papers.

4/5/1975 Croke Park, Westmeath 2-22 Antrim 2-17 (B)

13/5/1979, Cusack Park, Antrim 2-11 Westmeath 0-13 (B)

18/5/1980, Loughgiel, Antrim 2-14 Westmeath 1-12 (B)

21/7/1991, Dundalk, Antrim 5-11 Westmeath 1-5 (AQ-F)

18/6/2011, Casement Park, Antrim 2-25 Westmeath 1-19 (Q)

19/5/2012, Cusack Park, Westmeath 0-14 Antrim 0-12 (L)

5/5/2013, Cusack Park, Antrim 3-18 Westmeath 2-13 (L)

27/4/2014, Ballycastle, Antrim 0-23 Westmeath 2-11(L)

10/5/2015, Cusack Park, Westmeath 1-21 Antrim 0-7 (L)

2/6/2018, TEG Cusack Park, Westmeath 2-19 Antrim 1-20 (JMcD)

8/6/2019, Dunloy, Westmeath 0-29 Antrim 0-21 (JMcD)

25/10/2020, Belfast, Antrim 4-25 Westmeath 1-15 (JMcD)

Footballers face trip to Armagh

The aforementioned Ulster football championship runners-up turned out to be Armagh after an epic encounter with Derry in Clones required a historic penalty shootout to crown the Oak Leaf men as two in-a-row champions for the first time in almost half a century. Derry’s much-publicised managerial issues were put aside and, ironically, their victory will enable this scribe to, please God, complete a clean sweep of county grounds visited for Westmeath games in BOX-IT Athletic Grounds next Saturday (throw-in 4.45pm).

Dessie Dolan’s men undoubtedly drew the short straw when pitted against the Ulster final losers, rather than a 75 per cent chance of facing Clare, Sligo or Louth. With regard to the latter, yours truly was more than a little jealous when walking to Croke Park nine days ago, weighed down with ‘what ifs?’ after a disastrous second half showing in Páirc Tailteann had allowed Mickey Harte’s men to progress in the race for the Delaney Cup. However, I would be less than honest if I didn’t admit to my feeling of jealousy turning into relief after witnessing the Wee County’s demolition by the Dubs. God knows, we have experienced enough of those humiliating afternoons in Jones’ Rd.

The bottom line now is that we will face a formidable Orchard County side in front of their own passionate fans, followed by games (at home) against last year’s All-Ireland runners-up Galway and (neutral) against the 2021 champions Tyrone. It could hardly be much tougher, but it is what it is. Padraig Joyce’s side won the first game in the group on Saturday last against the Red Hand outfit in what was a contest between two vastly experienced Division 1 sides.

The aforementioned passionate fans came in their droves to Mullingar for ‘back door’ clashes with the Lake County in both 2017 and 2018. Like virtually all counties in both codes, their supporters hugely out-numbered the paltry home ‘crowd’ – a huge bone of contention for me, year in year out. So the mind boggles as to how out-shouted we will be in Armagh next Saturday. It will make an already-difficult task extremely difficult. However, as always, we live in hope.

The orange and white-clad outfit were managed in their comfortable (1-12 to 1-7) and very comfortable (3-16 to 1-11) wins in TEG Cusack Park six and five years ago respectively by legendary former player Kieran McGeeney, and the one-time centre half back par excellence still wears the Armagh bainisteoir bib. It will be unthinkable for the home management to lose their opening game against a side whose most consistent trait in 2023 has been their inconsistency. But, as stated, we live in hope. A sensational win would lift all Westmeath football boats. A lift is urgently needed.