Psychological barrier may be biggest threat to Westmeath's hopes
Tom Cribbin's team are trying to end a run of 22 championship games against Meath without a victory
When they went to Navan in early March, Westmeath were surfing a modest wave, hoisted to the top of Division 2 with two wins from their opening three matches.
History has not been kind to Westmeath in Meath's presence - their record going into the match being a chastening 21 defeats in 28 previous league meetings - but they were in reasonably good fettle by half-time, having recovered from an early goal to lead by two points with the breeze to face after the interval.
And then, as has happened often before, they got the head-staggers. Within seven minutes they'd leaked 2-2 and the match was effectively over. After that, their league form went into a downward spiral. The next match brought a depressingly meek surrender to Down, the Meath collapse triggering a run of defeats and, ultimately, relegation.
They face Meath today with none of that history airbrushed, as their championship record is much worse, no victory from all 22 prior encounters. The promising spell that preluded their Leinster title 11 years ago contained traumatic losses to Meath in the summers of 2001 and '03, when they blew golden opportunities to break their duck. In the '03 match Dessie Dolan missed a 20-metre free to win it, having played up a storm until then.
Wins in recent weeks over Louth and Wexford, both relegated from Division 3, aren't going to rid those niggling concerns that Meath enjoy a kind of jinx over their neighbours but they have gained some momentum which has been rare. Successive provincial wins were last achieved in 2008, the year they won the Division 2 league final, defeating Dublin, and went on to make a strong impact in the championship. Wins over Longford and Offaly were followed by a respectable effort in the Leinster semi-final against Dublin, going down by two points, before they pushed Tyrone hard in the qualifiers, losing by four, on the back of a win over Tipperary. Tyrone were All-Ireland champions in September.
This year can't compare to that level of performance but they are guaranteed to be playing longer than last year when they exited the championship on June 28.
Since '08, when they registered a first national league win over Meath since 1973, Westmeath have been peripheral and undergone a complete transformation in personnel. The optimism generated by '08 quickly evaporated the following year, seven straight losses in the top division leading to relegation and a hammering from Dublin in the championship by 27 points, matching a similar slaughter in April in the league from the same opposition. There has been little to cheer about in the meantime and last year's reign under Paul Bealin dissolved after one season.
Beating Meath today would be historic and represent a major achievement. Their manager Tom Cribbin famously cut loose after the team's relegation, confirmed with a defeat to Roscommon in the final round, but the impact appears to have been positive.
"There's a few big players just not performing for us and I don't know why or what's wrong. You need your big players to perform if you're going to deliver. When you're seeing the likes of young Killian Daly as probably one of your best players, you're expecting poor young Shane Dempsey to come on and win matches when you have senior players, that's f***ing not on."
That line of honesty has backfired on managers in the past but he has lost no players as a result and the team's form has picked up, even if there is a qualification attached given the poor form of the opposition.
"These big players are not standing up. I don't know why or what's going on with them. You saw the other lads and they just put everything on the line, lads that are general average players. But the few big lads who should be standing out leading, f**king lay down. And that's the real trouble with this team. There's hard questions to be asked and answered in the next week or two because we may just have to go on without a clatter of these players and start working on these young lads for the future."
Cribbin has added some expertise to his backroom team, including Gerry Duffy, the Mullingar native who has earned a reputation for endurance events after completing 32 marathons around Ireland in 32 days. Duffy is popular on the motivational speaking circuit and his pitch appealed to Cribbin. "When you hear Gerry's story (a one-time overweight smoker), then hear he did 10 ironman triathlons, back to back, one day after another, it's hard to even contemplate how this is possible, and the mental demand, as much as the physical. Even running one marathon takes a huge effort, so again to run 32, one day after another, is difficult to fathom.
"He wouldn't do any specific coaching work, but is just there to help the players in whatever way he can, and to help me too. He has plenty of advice to offer, mental and physical. Because he has dealt with it all. The lads have massive respect for him. We'll have to get them out for a long run with him one of these days."
Beating Meath is an endurance test they have failed in the past. In '09 they shipped a 10-point beating from them in the qualifiers when spirits were on the floor after the massacre by Dublin. Meath, it is nearly forgotten, went on to reach the All-Ireland semi-finals, losing by just four points to eventual winners Kerry.
In the national league in 2012 Westmeath finished mid-table in Division 3 and Meath went down. Yet Westmeath lost heavily to Meath in Mullingar, 0-5 to 0-17, reinforcing the Royals' traditional superiority.
The work of Adrian Harrison, a sports psychologist currently assisting Westmeath, may be of most benefit today. Meath are fancied to win again but the former Westmeath manager Luke Dempsey said after going down in a replay to their rivals 13 years ago that it has to end sometime. "It's tough on the players, and it gives a lot of credence to the whole theory that we will never beat Meath - which I don't agree with. But we have to still beat them."
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