Heslin drags Lake men out of doldrums
Westmeath 3-14 Louth 0-16
Two successive relegations and the loss of totemic figures over the winter meant there hasn't been much cheer around either Louth or Westmeath of late.
Both sides are deep in transition. Of the 30 players who took to the field, 11 were getting their first taste of championship action.
Neither team travelled to Drogheda with a huge amount of confidence in terms of what sort of a performance they'd produce. In the end Westmeath prevailed on the basis that they possessed the marquee footballers on the pitch, none more marquee than John Heslin.
Of the ten attempts he had over the 70 minutes, he landed nine points (three from play). His place-kicking was excellent - as was that of Louth's Ryan Burns - despite the difficult conditions, while Heslin also had a hand in two of Westmeath's three goals to cap a tremendous performance.
Afterwards Westmeath manager Tom Cribbin hailed the St Loman's forward's impact.
Cribbin had taken the unusual step of publicly criticising his team, particularly his senior players, after their relegation from Division 2.
It seemed high wire stuff with an already demoralised dressing-room but Cribbin insisted there was no issue in the panel.
"I speak from the heart the whole time with them," he said afterwards. "I was disappointed. I was disappointed for them.
"Sometimes you want to have an excuse - the lads were drinking or messing or something. But they're not like that. They're as committed a bunch of players as I've ever worked with in my life.
"When you have people like that and they're nice people to work with, you like to see them achieve."
Westmeath took a one-point lead in at the break (0-7 to 0-6), and they looked in a strong position having played against the breeze.
Early on, Heslin was struggling to influence the game, with Patrick Reilly proving an able opponent.
However, a yellow card for the Naomh Brid man on 23 minutes left him walking a tightrope for the remainder of the game and Heslin grew in stature to land four first-half points.
Westmeath struck for the first of their three goals less than 90 seconds after the restart. The previously subdued Callum McCormack fielded a long punt expertly. He had the power to shake off Padraig Rath and the presence of mind to lash home.
The lead was stretched to seven when one of the Westmeath debutants, Shane Dempsey, boxed to the net after Heslin and Ger Egan combined to leave the St Loman's clubman a simple opportunity.
Louth kept plugging away and looked more comfortable when they had to chase the game. Westmeath retreated and were comprehensively outplayed for the next ten minutes in what was Louth's best spell of the match.
Scores from Burns and Declan Byrne helped Colin Kelly's side close the gap to three points but just when it looked like the home side might be getting close enough to heap some real pressure on Westmeath, they were opened up once more.
This time Heslin fed Ray Connellan and he capped an excellent performance with a goal to put his side six points clear with just over ten minutes to play.
Louth kept coming but didn't look like they'd score enough to do any real damage, leaving Cribbin delighted with both the performance of his youngsters and that of Heslin.
"He's after being unbelievable over the last number of weeks. I was moving him around during the league, not knowing what his best position is," said Cribbin.
"But there's no doubt about it - John's best position by a long, long mile is in there in the danger area.
"He has two great feet, he's a good team player, he brings the best out of the young lads as well. he's a good option in the air too.
"We're getting there. We're learning how to play as a unit on the pitch, and communicate properly on the pitch.
"Because they're unbelievable trainers. If you came and watched them training, they're just unbelievable. They really, really work hard at training - as hard as any team as I've ever seen."
Louth have a long wait until the they qualifiers in late June. As was the case with the league, coughing up too many scores proved their undoing. Manager Colin Kelly admitted that they have a long way to go but expressed confidence the group would stay together.
"I'm not making excuses and that's not what this is about. This is no one's fault, but the reality is where we are and it's not easy.
"You're talking about a lot of debutants, it's a whole new squad, we're working as hard as we can.
"I don't think there would have been a younger county team in the country playing championship than there was out there today.
"No one is under any illusions, and there will be supporters with expectations beyond their means. But we don't talk about it as a group, we work on what we feel is best for the team.
"Scoring again hasn't been a problem, we kicked 16 points. For some reason we get broken down the (other end) of the field.
"For me, it's not about parking 13 guys behind the ball, it's about winning and you have to progress players. It's not about sitting 13 fellas behind the ball. We had to chase the game, we could have dropped everyone behind the ball and been beaten 12-13 in a war of attrition.
"We went to went the game and we went down because of mistakes on our behalf."
Scorers - Westmeath: J Heslin 0-9 (6fs), S Dempsey, R Connellan 1-2 each, C McCormack 1-1. Louth: R Burns 0-6 (4fs), T Durnin, C Grimes, D Byrne, E O'Connor 0-2 each, D Maguire, C Judge 0-1 each.
Westmeath - D Quinn 7; J Gilligan 7, K Maguire 8, K Daly 7; P Holloway 7, K Martin 8, J Dolan 7; D Daly 7, G Egan 8; J Egan 7, R Connellan 8, J Stapleton 6; C McCormack 7, J Heslin 9, S Dempsey 8. Subs: R Foley 6 for Stapleton (55), L Smyth 7 for Daly (57), F Boyle for Holloway (69).
Louth - N Gallagher 6; A Williams 6, P Reilly 6, P Rath 6; D Byrne 8, D O'Hanlon 6, A Reid 7; B Duffy 6, T Durnin 8; D Maguire 6, C Judge 7, J Stewart 6; R Burns 8, C Grimes 7, P Smith 6. Subs: E O'Connor for Smith (34), D Finnegan for Duffy (43), R Moore for Maguire (49), D Crilly for Stewart (61).
Ref - B Cassidy (Derry)