When Paul Bealin’s one-year term as Westmeath senior football manager started with three defeats from three matches in the O’Byrne Cup in 2014, I recall the affable Dubliner being far from put out by what I (and fellow-scribes present) felt was a worrying beginning to the year.
This was particularly so as his charges were set to face seven onerous tasks in Division 1 of the National League where many of us feared a whitewash. This is exactly what transpired, the Lake County men being generally well beaten by the country’s top teams. In the interim, yo-yoing straight down to Division 4 and back to Division 3 has seen us retain that third tier status for 2019. None of us certainly expect to lose all our matches there, albeit there is not a single ‘gimme’ facing Jack Cooney and his management team between January 27 and March 24.
This columnist’s O’Byrne Cup target has always been to win at least one game therein and to unearth at least one new player capable of holding his own in the far more serious world of the NFL and, ideally, the white heat of championship action come the summer.
Accordingly, Westmeath’s first home-grown bainisteoir in over a quarter-century has already ticked those boxes with victories against Carlow and Kildare (the 5/1 odds look very generous in hindsight given our six-point winning margin in The Downs last Sunday, where the host club managed their first such big day with typical efficiency), and a draw against Offaly in a match which was very competitive and was perhaps the most worthwhile point of all five gained.
Another neighbouring county will cross the ‘soft’ border next Saturday for a semi-final encounter, Longford football understandably buoyed by Mullinalaghta’s marvellous Leinster club championship success in December. This too promises to be an intense local derby, Padraic Davis’ troops set – like John Maughan’s – to face Westmeath in the league in the weeks ahead. Indeed, it was Longford – then under the tutelage of Denis Connerton – who all but ended our promotion hopes last March on a day in Glennon Bros Pearse Park when most of Ireland was severely frozen.
There has been much confusion as to our precise fixtures since the GAA issued an initial draft list last autumn. What follows is the finalised version, ironically commencing with a tough trip to play once-mighty Offaly in Bord na Móna O’Connor Park and ending with Longford coming to TEG Cusack Park. In between, Carlow (home), Down (away), Laois (home), Sligo (away) and Louth (away) make up what is a very tough programme where not a molecule of complacency can be tolerated in the Westmeath camp.
Westmeath’s NFL Division 3 fixtures and record to date
Sunday January 27, away v Offaly, 2 pm
Played 21, won 9, drew 0, lost 12
Last win 2016, last draw n/a, last defeat 2018
Saturday February 2, home v Carlow, 3 pm
Played 8, won 5, drew 1, lost 2
Last win 1993, last draw 2017, last defeat 1984
Saturday February 9, away . Down, 7 pm
Played 13, won 4, drew 1, lost 8
Last win 2007, last draw 1970, last defeat 2015
Sunday February 24, home v Laois, 2.30 pm
Played 14, won 5, drew 0, lost 9
Last win 2015, last draw n/a, last defeat 2010
Sunday March 3, away v Sligo, 2 pm
Played 30, won 14, drew 0, lost 16
Last win 2018, last draw n/a, last defeat 2016
Saturday March 16, away v Louth, 2 pm
Played 32, won 9, drew 1, lost 22
Last win 2013, last draw 1951, last defeat 2012
Sunday March 24, home v Longford, 2 pm
Played 38, won 19, drew 2, lost 17
Last win 2013, last draw 1994, last defeat 2018
On the hurling front, it is ridiculously early to be making even a tentative assessment of the Joe Quaid reign as anything other than the facile win achieved by his troops in their Kehoe Cup opener against Wicklow would have been a huge shock. The Limerick man deliberately chose to compete in the second tier Leinster competition rather than the Walsh Cup (where we have performed satisfactorily in recent years) and, while the silverware on offer is not especially prestigious in the overall scheme of things, Quaid will be expected to win it nonetheless.
Securing promotion to Division 1B eluded the ambitious Michael Ryan throughout his four years at the helm, a major disappointment to the Waterford man – an extremely courteous and pleasant man in his dealings with the local media. His successor won’t find the task any easier but this step up is paramount if Westmeath hurling is to fulfil its potential after some memorable and eye-catching championship wins at underage levels in recent years – the minors v Wexford and the U21s v Kilkenny, in particular.
It is not being disrespectful to suggest that the opening and closing games v London and Mayo respectively should result in home wins. However, yours truly has nightmare memories of both unheralded opponents, having been in Castlebar for a defeat in 2006 and in Ruislip for a fortunate draw eight years later. In between, very tricky trips to Kerry and Antrim, either side of Meath visiting Mullingar, will make or break the 2019 campaign where a top two slot is required to contest the divisional final.
Westmeath’s NHL Division 2A fixtures and record to date
Sunday January 27, home v London, 1 pm
Played 14, won 12, drew 2, lost 0
Last win 2018, last draw 2014, last defeat n/a
Sunday February 3, away v Kerry, 2 pm
Played 40, won 21, drew 4, lost 15
Last win 2018, last draw 2006, last defeat 2015
Sunday February 17, away v Antrim, 2 pm
Played 34, won 17, drew 1, lost 16
Last win 2017, last draw 2009, last defeat 2011
Sunday February 24, home v Meath, 12.30 pm
Played 30, won 19, drew 1, lost 10
Last win 2018, last draw 1994, last defeat 2003
Sunday March 3, home v Mayo, 1 pm
Played 6, won 5, drew 0, lost 1
Last win 2007, last draw n/a, last defeat 2006.