Saturday 23 September 2017

Vincent Hogan: Not even Jim Gavin's best Soprano smile will thieve Westmeath's euphoria this morning

Runaway Dubs next up for joyous Westmeath

Westmeath selector Gary Connaughton goes to celebrate with manager Tom Cribben after the game
Westmeath selector Gary Connaughton goes to celebrate with manager Tom Cribben after the game
John Heslin celebrates after scoring Westmeath's late goal in front of Meath full-back Cormac McGill RAMSEY CARDY / SPORTSFILE
Vincent Hogan

Vincent Hogan

The lost province threw up quite a commotion without ever angling towards any woolly-headed notions of Dublin being close to abdication. We got something that hadn't been seen since Cusack and the boys called order in Hayes's Hotel. But Westmeath's first championship defeat of Meath had the air of bridesmaids wrestling over a tossed garter. It was epochal in a strictly local way.

You could be thrilled for the families in maroon spilling down towards the toes of the Hogan Stand whilst still worrying that they will now be delivered as dinner on the crispest of linen come Sunday week. Because Dublin just roll through the province these days like a great twister blowing across an Oklahoma trailer park.

There is no polite way to frame what most anticipate will become of Tom Cribbin's boys on July 12, given their opponents have reached the Leinster final scoring an aggregate of 9-43 in two pistol-whippings with the paltry concession of 0-24.

Still, not even Jim Gavin's best Soprano smile will thieve Westmeath's euphoria this morning.

For they did unto Meath precisely what Meath have been, for generations, doing unto them. That is, they came with a late sucker punch generations of old soldiers in green and gold would have been able to admire as work of a kind they could relate to and respect.

What exactly did it tell us?

28 June 2015; Westmeath's Dennis Corroon celebrates after the game. Leinster GAA Football Senior Championship, Semi-Final, Westmeath v Meath. Croke Park, Dublin. Picture credit: Ray McManus / SPORTSFILE
28 June 2015; Westmeath's Dennis Corroon celebrates after the game. Leinster GAA Football Senior Championship, Semi-Final, Westmeath v Meath. Croke Park, Dublin. Picture credit: Ray McManus / SPORTSFILE

Well, that a Meath team leading by ten points after half an hour (and still nine to the good with just 20 minutes remaining) subsequently either fell into a calamitous torpor or ran into a flock of dervish ghosts demanding retribution for a near century and a half of pain.

You'd have to believe that a serious team would have played through the bad weather Westmeath brought to Mick O'Dowd's boys yesterday. But Meath came apart like a cheap suit. They bled an unanswered 1-4 in the closing ten minutes, a lot of men missing in action as the great maroon waves rolled through.

They say it is the death knell for a manager to condemn his own players, but Cribbin did it after this year's National League.

He talked, essentially, of big-name players lying down.

"You know me, I speak from the heart the whole time," he would smile when this was over.

But yesterday, it wasn't that those big-name players profoundly changed their ways.

It was more that Westmeath happened, eventually, upon an uncontainable spirit.

Their hero was a centre-back who'd spent the early flurries trapped in a no-man's land between the two defensive lines.

Only when Kieran Martin was given licence to roam did this game even become a contest. The Maryland man finished with 2-3 to his name and the promise of more exotic travel ahead. Would he be centre-back the next day? "Hardly!" grinned Cribbin.

28 June 2015; Westmeath's Ray Connellan celebrates following his side's victory. Leinster GAA Football Senior Championship, Semi-Final, Westmeath v Meath. Croke Park, Dublin. Picture credit: Ramsey Cardy / SPORTSFILE
28 June 2015; Westmeath's Ray Connellan celebrates following his side's victory. Leinster GAA Football Senior Championship, Semi-Final, Westmeath v Meath. Croke Park, Dublin. Picture credit: Ramsey Cardy / SPORTSFILE

The manager understood the eccentricity of what had been done here, the sense of history having less to do with strategy than with a group of men simply deciding they'd had their fill of hurt.

"Miracle stuff," said Cribben. "We just threw caution to the wind and went at them.

"The first half had been a nightmare. Probably the intensity Meath brought to it after a difficult few days for them showed. But we believed we could finish strong."

Martin became the focal point of everything good Westmeath found within themselves.

He just ran at Meath captain Donal Keogan, like a bull towards a picket fence and, each time, Keogan seemed mildly startled by his effrontery. And, like their captain, Meath unravelled with shockingly little appetite for a quarrel.

You had to wonder what on earth would Messrs Lyons, Harnan and Foley have deduced from it all?

Westmeath full-back Kevin Maguire was of a view that nerves had infected his team's early play, that subconsciously, they "started on the back foot".

The strangeness of it was that Meath were not flattered by the early accumulation of scores. Eamonn Wallace and Graham Reilly kept running murderous lines and, when Bryan McMahon goaled twice inside a minute, it looked like Cribbin might be inviting the Order of Malta to give his half-time speech.

"They were bombarding us," acknowledged Maguire. "The sun was out, it was absolutely boiling out there and a lot of our lads were out of breath. But the lads up front are fantastic footballers if we only get the ball up to them..."

So they came from nowhere to prise away a precious piece of history, the likes of Martin and John Heslin unplayable in the end.

But you couldn't escape noting how the Hill had barely 100 customers in situ as that semi-final started and the general Dublin view of where this season might get serious was maybe best encapsulated after their flogging of Kildare when Alan Brogan admitted he thought that Meath had won.

No matter how many bodies Kildare pulled back yesterday, the rotation of their opponents' forwards made it an exercise in futility. Survival against Dublin isn't accessible through simple dint of numbers. You need a system that frightens as much as frustrates them and Kildare never even came close to either here.

They looked porous at the back and muddled in attack, but then all but the biggest teams do when set this specific challenge.

So we learned little about Gavin's team in relation to how they might go against a Kerry, Donegal or Mayo. What we did see was that they have used winter to lubricate the transition between attack and defence. Dublin systematically throw up road blocks now that would have been inconceivable in their Harlem Globetrotting phase.

This, presumably, is designed to offer the kind of protection they recklessly lacked last August but, even on the back of this 19-point win, you had to wonder if the better teams might still glimpse opportunity down Dublin's defensive spine.

What they categorically will not see is a forward-line open to easy containment.

And that's the worry for Westmeath now. In making history, they also set themselves an implausible challenge. That of roping down a blue whirlwind.

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