We must push on and take a big scalp outside of Leinster to show we mean business' - Westmeath's Ger Egan
Published 30/07/2016 | 02:30
Perhaps it was inevitable after the euphoria of a first championship win against Meath and a Leinster final appearance that Westmeath's bubble would burst tamely 12 months ago but Ger Egan is determined to not let history repeat itself.
It was uncharted territory for Tom Cribbin's side and Egan admits the added exposure and hype surrounding their progress played a part in their downfall as a comprehensive defeat to Dublin was followed by a meek showing against Fermanagh in the last 12.
This year a similar scenario offers a shot at redemption and while the Westmeath captain acknowledges the scale of today's task against regular All-Ireland contenders Mayo, he feels they need to take down one of the game's big guns to underline any significant progression.
"We need to go and take a big scalp now outside of Leinster, Fermanagh was our opportunity last year and we didn't take it so if we're really to show that we mean business in championship we have to take a big scalp," he says.
"But Mayo are an awesome team and we know what's ahead of us but we want to get to an All-Ireland quarter-final. We think we're good enough but we need a 70-minute performance, we need the game of our lives."
Despite plummeting from Division 1 to Division 4 in just three seasons, Westmeath have been the second best team in Leinster behind the unstoppable Dubs for successive years. Regrouping from another relegation in the spring wasn't easy but belief never wavered.
"We had our sights on going for promotion, never mind relegation. It didn't work out but we sat down straight after the league was finished, we set our goals out to get back to a Leinster final and we had 100pc belief that we'd get there," Egan says.
"We said we were going to keep it low-key and keep away from everyone because maybe it was the distractions we didn't need, the performances weren't there and I think that helped us.
"Last year, especially after beating Meath, everybody wanted a little bit of you. It's kind of hard to keep away from it and keep concentrating on your football. So there's another thing we're after learning from and bringing forward to this year.
"Lads are enjoying it a bit more. We're a year down the road, a year more experience. There's more's hunger going into this game because we don't want the same to happen to us this year and to deliver another flat performance like last year."
Egan rues "a lack of ruthlessness" when chances arose early against the reigning All-Ireland champions two weeks ago and believes they were better value than their one-point half-time deficit suggests.
The closing half brought the usual onslaught from Jim Gavin's squad and while many bemoan their status as the game's standard-bearers citing population, funding and a myriad of advantageous circumstances, the Tyrrellspass midfielder has nothing but admiration for the powerhouse which the Dubs have cultivated.
Dublin have upped the ante, too high for only a select few of the chasing pack, but he relishes the challenge of trying to build a panel of players to compete with the elite and doesn't concur with the negative press surrounding football's health.
"I suppose the GAA has nearly gone professional without the perks of money in the back pocket but no GAA player would be doing what they're doing if they didn't want to do it," he says.
"It's a lot of hard yards especially when you have to go and work on top of it but you know everyone wants to get to that standard and I think they are raising the bar for everyone and everyone's trying to get there so is it improving GAA?
"I think so. I think it is improving football. I know teams might give out about defensive stuff but you go out to win the game the best you think possible and if that's ultra defensive or that's ultra attacking then that's what you have to do.
"And you can't have five lads that are able to stand with the top teams, you need 30 and 20 taking the pitch on game day and every team is trying to get that 20 or 25 players that can match it and be an athlete for 70 minutes.
"That's the way the game has gone, it is a very athletic sort of game. You have your sharpshooters at one end your dogs at the other end, that's the way the games are gone."
Much was made of Cribbin's "targeting" comments in reference to Diarmuid Connolly but Egan feels it was blown out of proportion and he doesn't think they are at all cynical. They will do what they can to prevail, however, and Mayo's big names like Aidan O'Shea and Cillian O'Connor are likely to receive some special attention today.
"We said, 'What's the players we need to shut down to increase our chances of winning?' and obviously Diarmuid was one of them. You do whatever you have to to win and I wouldn't make a big deal over it," he says candidly.
"Targeting was taken out of context but to try shut him down the best we could, yeah 100pc."