Páidí phone call changed everything – Tomás Ó Flatharta
It's now 10 years since Tomás Ó Flatharta's phone rang. Páidí ó Sé was on the other end, still hurt in his voice from how things had ended with Kerry.
Things had hardly settled in the Kingdom, but Westmeath wanted him, he explained. And he wanted ó Flatharta. It was out of the blue for ó Flatharta, but he had known Páidí since they were both kids, so he followed him to the midlands for the 2004 season.
It all happened in the blink of an eye from there and for a couple of glorious summer months, they made history on an almost weekly basis.
That year, Westmeath beat Offaly for the first time since 1949; Dublin had confounded them for 43 years before that summer but were put to the sword; and Wexford fell next before the Lakemen secured their first – and only – Leinster title against Laois.
A decade on and even with Páidí's sad passing, ó Flatharta's journey now continues at Laois following stints in charge of Westmeath and Galway. When the phone buzzed all those years ago, none of this was in the plan.
"When Páidí rang, I had no thoughts of becoming involved in inter-county teams or anything at all. It all just happened," ó Flatharta reflects.
"I was with Páidí for two years. It was a fantastic two years, very memorable and then when Páidí finished, Westmeath asked me would I take the thing on board. With (Laois) as well I just got a call late last year."
The victory over Dublin in 2004 was particularly sweet. Tommy Lyons' side threatened to blow Westmeath out of the water early on, but they hung on grimly.
"In the first 15 minutes they steamrolled over us and they were kicking points for fun. Then we made a few changes in the back line and, bit by bit, coming up towards half-time, the game was changing a bit and we were two points down going in at half-time," ó Flatharta says.
"We just knew at that stage that we would get the better of them. It was just sheer character and workrate that got us through that day."
It's a different Dublin side now that Laois will face on Sunday. They are heavily laden with medals and boast a higher calibre of player who have had garlands thrown at their feet since last year's All-Ireland win.
Dublin were also All-Ireland champions when the sides last met in 2012, when only a deflected goal separated the teams.
It has only been two years, but Laois have witnessed significant changes since then. Just five players from the team who started that day were in ó Flatharta's team when they saw off Wicklow last month.
"Dublin have moved on. Laois ran them very close that day and did quite well. There has a lot of different personnel since then, new management, the game itself has changed and the rules too," he contends.
"Can you take anything from that? I'm sure the players will take confidence that they were able to step up to the mark that day when they weren't given any chance either. But you can't be relying on that."
Laois kicked 21 points against Wicklow in Aughrim in their championship opener this year, but perhaps it's at the back where they will be most tested. Dublin's firepower was underlined in their second-half display against Cork and that 17-point swing.
Under ó Flatharta, Westmeath boasted one of the meanest defences around and Laois will need plenty of that come Sunday.
"There's been a lot of talk of the way we are playing, but I always maintain that when you have the ball, you have to attack with it," says the Kerryman.
"On the other hand, when you don't have the ball, you have to roll up your sleeves and everyone has to defend. Whether that's a corner-forward or someone in the full-back line, everyone has to get in on the act."
Ten years on and ó Flatharta is still involved, thanks to a simple phone call. Logic says Laois will lose on Sunday, but you imagine he would have long since given up the ghost if he didn't believe in the magic of a championship game.
"They're the All-Ireland champions, the league champions and the Leinster champions as well – but no team in the country is unbeatable," he reasons.
"I've a lot of trust in these lads, faith and belief, and they have that in their own ability as well. We're going in with a lot of purpose to this game."