Faithful revival gathering pace
It's only mid-January but Offaly have already won more games in 2013 than in all of last year.
Three wins in a week have not only earned them a semi-final clash with Kildare next Sunday, they have also pumped oxygen into confidence tanks which had been heavily depleted.
It's early days in the rebuilding process but Offaly are showing enough signs to suggest new manager Emmet McDonnell is putting down solid foundations. The manner of Offaly's win in Mullingar will certainly have pleased all concerned as it was quarried from a spirit which hadn't been much in evidence over the last few years.
Westmeath led 0-6 to 0-2 at half-time and, while they had lost experienced front men Dessie Dolan (hamstring) and Denis Glennon (shoulder) to injury in the first half hour, they still looked to have enough to guide them home.
However, it was altogether different in the second half as Offaly raised the tempo, cut down on the errors and applied a more direct game which ultimately proved a match-winner.
"We told the lads at half-time to have more self-belief. They did that and it worked well," said McDonnell.
Westmeath's game fell apart in direct proportion to Offaly's improvement and, with Doron Harte joining Dolan and Glennon on the bench after suffering concussion in a heavy clash with Niall McNamee in the 50th minute, the initiative swung very much in the direction of the visitors.
"When you score only once in 35 minutes, you're going to struggle. We did well in the first half but didn't perform to anything like the same level in the second half," said Westmeath manager Pat Flanagan.
However, he wasn't especially gloomy over the defeat as the injury blitz probably cost them victory in a game which yielded more wides (22) than scores (15) on a calm afternoon.
As events elsewhere transpired, a narrow win for Westmeath would not have been enough to earn them a semi-final place. Instead, Laois who won easily against Athlone IT, would have squeezed out both Westmeath and Offaly on scoring difference.
Offaly need another game more than Westmeath or Laois as they are coming from further back so it will be interesting to see how they cope with the step-up in class against a Kildare squad that beat them easily in both the O'Byrne Cup and Leinster championship last year.
"We had used 24 players by Wednesday night and had two more today so 26 lads have got a run so far. We're trying different options, different players and different tactics," said McDonnell, who will be targeting promotion from Division 4 as a priority.
Westmeath have higher goals, with Flanagan making no secret that promotion to Division 1 is very much on their agenda. "The whole focus is on trying to get out of Division 2. Westmeath people will be disappointed today but there's a much bigger picture ahead," said Flanagan.
He will be hoping Dolan and Glennon shake off their injuries and are fit enough to put in a full league campaign as the pair are hugely important cogs in Westmeath's attacking wheel.
Dolan showed prominently early on and, with Glennon imposing himself at centre-forward, Westmeath were the more threatening force. However, Dolan was forced out after 17 minutes, with Glennon following him 11 minutes later.
Despite the double setback, Westmeath led by four points at half-time and with Offaly malfunctioning in attack, a home win seemed highly likely. However, Offaly were a transformed side in the second half and once Niall McNamee pointed in the first minute, the pattern changed.
The sides were level after 47 minutes and while Paul Bannon pointed for the Lakemen in the 51st minute, it provided only temporary sustenance. Ross Brady drew Offaly level with a free in the 56th minute and sub Paul McPadden nabbed the winner in the 67th minute.
"For us, the O'Byrne Cup is all about blowing out the dirty petrol of the last few years. These games are giving us a chance to do that," said McDonnell.
They certainly cleared the pipes in the second half when intelligent passing took the Westmeath defence down troublesome channels they hadn't experienced in the first half.
Paul Sharry, a powerful presence at the heart of the Westmeath defence, did his best to seal the approach routes but Offaly played around him in the second half, cleverly exploiting the wings as they powered through the gears.
"It's disappointing to lose but we have given a lot of players game time which will stand to them," said Flanagan.
As for Offaly, it was another step on the revival route, one which was thoroughly deserved on a day when their dogged defiance enabled them to outscore Westmeath by 0-7 to 0-2 over the final 37 minutes.
Scorers – Offaly: N McNamee (1f), R Brady (2f) 0-2 each, A McNamee, D Hanlon, G Guilfoyle, P McPadden 0-1 each. Westmeath – Dessie Dolan (1f), P Bannon, P Sharry (1 '45) 0-2 each, Denis Glennon (f) 0-1.
Offaly – A Mulhall; P McConway, B Darby, E Rigney; D Hanlon, S Pender, D Kelly; A McNamee, R Dalton; G Guilfoyle, B Connor, E Carroll; P Cunningham, N McNamee, R Brady. Subs: A Sullivan for Cunningham (22), M Mitchell for Dalton (35), S Sullivan for Carroll (42), P McPadden for Rigney (61), K McGuinness for Guilfoyle (70).
Westmeath – G Connaughton; M McCallon, K Gavin, K Maguire; M Curley, P Sharry, D Harte; D Corroon, P Bannon; K Reilly, Denis Glennon, D Mullan; R Foley, C Curley, Dessie Dolan. Subs: David Glennon for Dessie Dolan (17), D McCormack for Denis Glennon (28), L Smith for C Curley (44), Damien Dolan for Harte (50), D Daly for Reilly (60).
Ref – P Maguire (Longford)