Saturday 25 March 2017

Westmeath boss Flanagan unfazed by baptism of fire

Cliona Foley

Cliona Foley

HE is relatively unknown nationally and faces the unenviable task of making his inter-county managerial debut in the white-hot atmosphere of a Leinster SFC quarter-final against the wiliest fox in the game.

Yet Westmeath's interim manager Pat Flanagan is hardly the football ingenue and fall guy that many might expect as the Lake County take on Wicklow in Tullamore tomorrow.

Asked this week about Mick O'Dwyer's claims that the match should have been given a more neutral venue, Flanagan quipped: "Ah, I think Micko is playing a few mind games there.

He's long enough in the tooth to know that complaining about the venue won't lead to a switch, but maybe it will get him and Wicklow something more favourable further down the line. Who knows?"

If that astute reply didn't sound like a meek, intimidated managerial rookie, it was because Flanagan isn't one. A native of Offaly football stronghold Clara, Flanagan led Tyrrellspass to the 2007 Leinster club final (beaten by St Vincent's) and was also a selector, for two years, with former Westmeath manager Tomas O Flatharta.

The circumstances of his county appointment were certainly unfortunate and haven't dealt him a strong hand. When first-year Westmeath boss Brendan Hackett was ousted by a player coup at the end of NFL relegation, Flanagan was only given the job on an interim basis to see out the rest of this season.

Left with such a sudden vacuum, Flanagan's was the one name that the county board and players could agree on in a hurry and he has a reputation as a straight-talking players' man with plenty of football nous.

His problem was that he has only had six weeks to turn them around and he took over when Westmeath's confidence was lower than a snake's belly after 14 consecutive league defeats over two seasons. The last time Westmeath won a league game was when they beat Dublin in the 2008 Division 2 final.

Flanagan managed to persuade Westmeath's two best forwards -- Dessie Dolan and Denis Glennon -- out of their self-imposed exile, but he hasn't had the same breaks with his defence, especially the full-back line.

Two-time All Star corner-back John Keane has not come out of retirement and Kieran Gavin -- who played during the league -- had already stated his intentions to travel abroad.

Flanagan has certainly made some brave selections, deciding not to start Dolan, even though he has played in three recent challenges against Clare, Mayo and Dublin.

He has introduced Athlone's Alan Gaughan -- a county U-21 last year, but best known as an AIL rugby player, currently with Garryowen.

He has kept faith and given championship debuts to several other players that Hackett brought in, notably Garrycastle's John Gaffey and county hurler Paul Greville.

In the past two years Westmeath have had question marks over their midfield and centre-back spots. Flanagan has opted for U-21 Kevin Martin at No 6 and put his faith in David Duffy and Paul Bannon in midfield.

This time last year U-21 star Conor Lynham, at corner-forward, played a key role in Westmeath's extra-time victory over Wicklow, scoring four points from play. Flanagan has entrusted him with the centre-forward spot and given dual star Greville a corner-forward spot.

By bringing in former players Paul Conway (who had been a member of a previous county backroom) and David Mitchell as selectors, he has been particularly player-centred and positive.

"I knew from my (previous) involvement as a selector that there was a good bunch of lads involved, that they would give me every ounce of effort, and that their attitude and commitment would be spot on. That's proved the case since I took the job," he said this week. Tomorrow will tell if it has paid off.

Irish Independent

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