If beating Meath felt this good, imagine dethroning Dublin
It's 2.0pm, June 28, 2015. The referee throws up the ball between fierce rivals Westmeath and Meath in the Leinster Championship semi-final in Croke Park. The odds are heavily stacked against the Lake County men who have never beaten the Royals in the championship.
I am 2,000 miles away, on a train journey through the Austrian Alps. This is the first big Westmeath game I have missed in years and coverage wasn't great. Between my phone and iPad, I try to follow the match as best I can. Live updates are coming in fast and furious from my dad and my brothers. Things don't look very promising. The Twitter machine doesn't give us much hope. "Not again," I thought, "the same old story."
We pulled into Vienna Central Station. It was half-time and I received a disappointing phone call that Meath had a big lead and our boys were struggling to cope. But, by the time I arrived at my hotel half an hour later, Westmeath were showing signs that an upset was on.
Even though I was attending an event at a magnificent palace - where former US Secretary of State John Kerry was also holding talks with EU delegates - all I could think was "am I missing out on Westmeath making history back home?"
Then the text landed, Westmeath had won 3-19 to 2-18. And if we did it once, we should live in the hope that we can do it again.
At 4.0pm today Westmeath take on the Dubs in the Leinster semi-final. Tom Cribbin's men are on a 10-match unbeaten run in league and championship; it's a long way off Dublin's 36-match undefeated record but it's something Westmeath teams don't achieve too often.
And we had the highest scorer of the four divisions - albeit we were in the bottom tier - in John Heslin from St Loman's, who racked up 3-60. Not too many players can reach those heights at any grade.
I hope it's the start of the climb back up the ladder; I hope we get there as quickly as we dropped down.
There has been plenty in the build-up to today's game about some of Westmeath's other high-quality footballers, the likes of Paul Sharry, captain Ger Egan, Kieran Martin and James Dolan, who leading analysts reckon would be contenders for places on any of the top teams in the country.
Denis Glennon, the last survivor of Westmeath's heroic Leinster championship-winning side of 2004, still has the pace, as he proved when he won a crucial free against Offaly in Tullamore. The free, pointed by Heslin in very tough conditions in the game's dying moments, secured the replay in Mullingar last weekend.
Although they face mountainous odds today, former Westmeath defender John Keane - two-time All Star, and manager of the county under 21 side - feels the team has a lot going for it.
"The guys have put in good championship performances back to back, year on year, and that is something Westmeath have struggled with. They have made it through the first round for the last three years.
"This current group are very much under-rated; there is a perception out there that Leinster is exceptionally poor but a lot of it is to do with the fact that we have had the All-Ireland champions for the last two years, one of the greatest Gaelic football teams of my generation. Dublin are just pushing on and pushing on and everyone else is chasing them."
After the drawn game with Offaly, everyone spoke about what a dour affair it was. But for Keane, Westmeath's performance in the replay showed that they are capable of exceptional scores.
"I know there is a big gap between the likes of Offaly and Dublin but I think the players, the management and Tom Cribbin have done a huge job over the last number of years and I would imagine that this weekend they will push on and really test themselves," he says.
"At the end of the day somebody has to catch Dublin out . . . they are dominating unbelievably but whether it's Kildare in the Leinster final or in the semi-final someone is going to topple them. We're probably forever going to be the underdog until such time as we do enough to shake it off, but the players have to have the belief."
On the streets of Mullingar and Athlone, in the coffee shops, pubs, hotels and schools, there is a lot of interest at the moment in Westmeath's football and hurling teams.
In Keane's first year as under 21 manager, he guided Westmeath to victory over Meath. They went on to lose out to Dublin on a windy and wet night last March. Westmeath did well in the first half, but Dublin's fitness told in the end.
Last year Westmeath beat Kilkenny for the first time in the Leinster under 21 hurling championship in a thriller. They were beaten in the final by Dublin. Last Wednesday they lost to Kilkenny in the Leinster semi-final, but they were well in the game until the last quarter when the Kilkenny substitutes made a telling impact. The Westmeath panel did not have the same depth.
The Westmeath ladies are another competitive force, qualifying for their third Leinster final in a row.
At Ardnagrath National School, Walderstown, Athlone, where Keane teaches and three of Westmeath's current senior panel attended, the kids are excited by the wins.
"They don't care whether its Division 1 or 2 or 3 or 4, winning is important to create interest and a desire to play. I can see it in the kids in my school, now they are mad to play football and play for Westmeath, and up until the Leinster final a couple of years ago that desire wasn't there," Keane says.
The Lake County will always remember Kerry legend Páidí Ó Sé, who managed Westmeath to their first Leinster title in 2004.
Midfielder Rory O'Connell (Westmeath's first football All Star winner in 2001), goalkeeper Gary Connaughton (All Star in 2008) and Dessie Dolan (All Star in 2004), have cemented their legacy in the county. Dolan will today be inducted into Leinster GAA's Hall of Fame.
Cribbin wants his men to someday be spoken of in the same light.
"You're not really remembered unless you win a championship title, you have to win a title of some kind, and for us it's a Leinster title first. I think we're heading in the right direction, but don't forget that the 2004 winning team had a backbone of success at underage," he says.
"At underage some work is being done but it's just not enough to be bringing enough quality players through with the right conditioning work to win at underage and then develop them to be senior players. We have some part-time coaches but you have to have full-time coaches going on the whole time at underage if you want to have success. The tradition and talent is there in Westmeath but they need a proper centre of excellence."
The GAA should be looking at ways to support rural counties, particular those in the midland region where small populations and tight budgets are hampering the ability of county boards to source sponsorship for running their football, hurling and camogie teams.
Year after year these counties are competing against those with big populations and flush with funds.
Today represents Westmeath's sixth match in Croke Park in three years, and Cribbin says his side are confident they will compete right to the end.
"No one really gives us an honest chance but within our group we believe that we are good enough," he says. "This game is the only way we are really going to know for definite if we have learned from the past."
Will it be a more attacking game?
"If Dublin knew every detail of a team's game-plan they probably would beat you because they have the tradition and All-Irelands behind them . . . we have to have surprise on our side, that is the only way."
Westmeath will be without injured defender Paddy Holloway, but Dublin won't be at full strength either.
"No matter what anyone says the loss of Diarmuid Connolly is a major blow - that would be like if John Heslin was gone for me, he'd be a horrendous loss, one of the major trump cards," says Cribbin. "Whether they like it or not Connolly is one of their best forwards so the timing is good - the earlier you play Dublin the better your chances because they have to be thinking of September and peaking later on against the top teams."
Despite being very much the underdogs, I'm sure large numbers of maroon and white flags around the players today will inspire them.
Ask not what your county can do for you - ask what you can do for your county.
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