"It's a miracle for the lads" - Westmeath boss reflects on dramatic comeback win
Westmeath 3-19 Meath 2-18
For so long it looked like things would be as they always were.
Meath's routine win would see them advance to another Leinster final. And, as the day would pan out, afford them another shot at Dublin.
There was nothing to suggest we would witness a small piece of history. No hint at what was to come.
After all, Meath were, at times, brilliant in the first half and arguably played some of the best football of Mick O'Dowd's reign.
Eamonn Wallace, Graham Reilly, Bryan McMahon had the run of the place and at one stage they led by ten points. The gave up other goal chances too in favour of a point.
Westmeath were all at sea. What little resistance they could offer seemed only academic.
By the time they went in at the break they were eight points in arrears. They were surely headed the way of the 22 teams that had gone before them against Meath in the championship.
However, at half-time Tom Cribbin made some subtle and not-so-subtle changes to his side. After the break, kick-outs went short, their defence tightened up and, perhaps most significantly, Kieran Martin switched to the forwards.
Martin had goaled from centre-back in the first half but Bryan McMahon hit two for Meath inside a minute to help them stretch the league into double figures.
But in the second half, Martin was close enough to John Heslin and suddenly Westmeath always seemed to have an out as Meath struggled to regain their fluency in attack.
Between them, Heslin and Martin would drag Westmeath back into the game.
Even then, it looked like Meath would have enough in reserve. But Westmeath's comeback was made up of a host of little things rather than one major turning point. When Martin grabbed his second goal, there was still five between the teams with 20 minutes to play.
But a Heslin score and a pair of Paul Sharry '45s helped cut the gap further. And as they got closer, Westmeath grew in confidence and Meath began to wobble.
Graham Reilly picked up a black card for a trip early in the half. And when Donnacha Tobin followed suit with ten minutes to go, it was another sign that Meath were shipping water.
The Royals were three up with less than ten to play after Mickey Newman pointed from a free but as was the case late on against Wicklow, the Royals looked nervous.
Two Heslin frees cut the gap to the minimum before Martin raced along the touchline to fist over from a tight angle.
The sides were now level, Meath made a rare foray forward but Newman went for goal when Meath were crying out for a settling score.
At the other end, Martin put his side ahead with an almost identical score to his last. Meath replied and created another half goal chance but this time McMahon was bottled up before he could get his shot off.
With the back door open, Westmeath raced down field from the turnover and Heslin rolled the ball brilliantly to the corner of the net to finish the job.
From a return of 2-12 in the first 35 minutes, Westmeath kept the Royals to just six points after the restart. On the back of some astute management, application and some brilliance, history was made and in the most dramatic fashion.
This came from a team that had gone 15 games and almost 600 days without a win before they turned over DCU in Kinnegad back in January. And even then they would go on to suffer a second successive relegation.
And it's only the end of the league since Tom Cribbin took the unusual step and publicly demanded more from his senior players after they slipped into Division 3.
"It's a miracle for the lads there," said the Westmeath manager. "At the start of the year, I saw something special in that group of lads.
"We knew they have fierce character and getting them to gel as a unit was the whole secret to making it happen.
"We decided to go for it and just convince them that we've done it in the last two games. We got two goals within a couple of minutes up in Louth.
"The last day against Wexford, we scored 1-9 in seven to eight minutes, so we're just trying to instil that into them, that it's there for us on the big stage.
"There was no Braveheart stuff or any of this. It was common sense."
For Meath, there were a couple of hard truths. The Wicklow game reealed a brittleness to their defensive play that betrayed them here.
And when those late chances presented themselves, there were no cool heads. It capped a miserable week for the county that had seen their juniors, minors and seniors beaten by Wexford, Longford and Westmeath respectively.
"That's probably the most frustrating thing," said manager Mick O'Dowd whose side finished with 14 men after Paddy O'Rourke was sent off late on.
"You expect a team to come back at you and to come strong at you and when you counter you need to be able to finish it.
"When you are one up, it was the time to tap it over the bar and go two up. We didn't do that.
"We were a point down and we had a chance to tap it over the bar and equalise and reset for the kick-out and we didn't do that.
"So we can't have any complaints. I'm not making any excuses."
The post-mortem starts in Meath, but this was Westmeath's day in the sun.
Martin was one of the game's central figures, filling roles in both attack and defence. On two key occasions he threw his county a lifeline with goals.
"You make your own luck at the end of the day," said the Maryland man. "The harder you work the more luck you get.
"With ten minutes to go you are looking at the clock wondering if half-time is ever going to come, especially with them tipping the ball over the bar.
"I won't say thank God we got in only ten points down but we knew once we got in at half-time that we were not out of the game.
"We got 1-9 in ten minutes against Wexford.
"Once we clicked we knew there would be no stopping us."
Game at a glance
Man of the match: Kieran Martin (Westmeath). Almost impossible to split Martin and John Heslin but both of Martin's goals came when Westmeath were almost too far adrift, plus he landed the point that levelled things and put them one up.
Talking point: What has happened Meath? Once famous for their comebacks, they collapsed when the pressure came on in the second half.
Magic moment: John Heslin’s decisive goal at the death was a move that started with a turnover in the Westmeath area and ended with the ball in the Meath net
Ref watch: No arguments from either side afterwards about the performance of Cork’s Conor Lane.
What's next? Westmeath face Dublin in Leinster final on July 12, while Meath await this morning's Qualifier draw.