Westmeath banish League woes as Offaly rue missed opportunities
Westmeath 0-13 Offaly 0-12
Westmeath's disastrous League campaign is now a distant memory after Tom Cribbin's side produced a powerful first-half display before holding on for dear life against Offaly in Cusack Park, Mullingar.
The Lake County led 0-9 to 0-3 at the break with John Heslin on fire at the edge of the square but Pat Flanagan's Faithful side battled back bravely and closed the gap to a solitary point on four occasions, but that was the closest they could get.
Cribbin was showered with congratulations at the final whistle and after overcoming the disappointment of relegation to Division 4, he was delighted with the display.
"There was a lot of pressure on us because we knew we underperformed in the League," he said.
"Management was very disappointed with themselves, and so were the players. We all knew we didn't get it right, and we had to deliver."
The defeat will be a bitter pill to swallow for Offaly but they were their own worst enemies. They were left in the starting stalls in the opening 35 minutes, leaving a mountain to climb: it was always going to difficult to overturn a six-point deficit in a midands derby.
There was virtually no resemblance to the side who shot the lights out against Longford four weeks ago, and missing out on the opportunity to get back-to-back Leinster Championship wins will hurt them.
Star forward Niall McNamee was a peripheral figure and the decision to leave the pint-sized Bernard Allen alone in the full-forward was a strange one as he was well marshalled by the tigerish Jamie Gonoud.
Offaly made many schoolboy errors in the first half, typified by Alan Mulhall spilling a harmless shot over the endline which Paul Sharry punished from the resulting '45', and Flanagan cut a forlorn figure afterwards.
"It's exceptionally difficult to accept. We slipped up in the League by not getting up into Division 2 and now we've slipped up here by not winning this game, a game that probably we should have won," he said.
"I felt we had the better of it in the second half and we had opportunities and we didn't take them.
"A couple of decisions went against us as well. . . it's very, very difficult to take.
"The guys were certainly nervous but we're still learning. We've been down a good bit."
Westmeath led from pillar to post after Denis Corroon's opening score, and with Heslin lively in attack, they looked an entirely different prospect to what we saw during the spring.
The St Loman's attacker rattled off a hat-trick of points as he caused Sean Pender endless problems before Eoin Rigney switched over and helped quieten his influence, and Offaly were finally on the board through a Nigel Dunne free in the 19th minute.
Allen and Graham Guilfoyle were on target from play to make it 0-4 to 0-3, but they wouldn't score again in the half as Westmeath took complete control and punished a series of elementary mistakes and some abysmal shooting.
Cribbin's men hit five in a row to close out the half, with the excellent John Connellan, whose distribution was magnificent, firing two, while a brace from Paul Sharry and a Heslin free left them six ahead at the break.
Offaly needed a good start, and with Peter Cunningham driving forward from the back, they began to dominate as Dunne fired over a free before Johnny Moloney and Cunningham pointed to cut the gap to three.
Westmeath made hay with limited forays into attack in the closing period, however, and Connellan hit his third before McNamee and two frees from Dunne closed the gap to the minimum.
But they couldn't get level.
Heslin and Dunne traded scores before Kieran Martin pointed. Dunne responded with an excellent point from play as the Offaly crowd sensed an opportunity to draw level but defender James Dolan quashed momentum with a brilliant score the other end.
Cunningham left one in it again with a beautiful left-footed effort and they had a free to force a replay but with regular free-taker Dunne black carded, McNamee skewed his effort wide of the posts as Westmeath held on.
A bloodied but delighted Martin described how going back to their clubs for two rounds of championship re-energised the squad and he has his eyes set on repeating their Croke Park heroics from 12 months ago.
"It's all about Championship at the end of the day, you use the League to build up your performance for Championship. Things didn't go our way but it was the same last year and we got to the Leinster final. We want to get back there this year," he said.
"There was a lot of pressure. Offaly had that win behind them and we were coming in fresh but we worked hard. I know we've a few lads gone off the panel but we've others willing to step up and do it."
It was a harrowing return to Mullingar for former Westmeath boss Flanagan but he has challenged his players to bounce back against London in the qualifiers.
"I said it to the boys down there, what are we gonna do with it? Are we gonna walk away and come back next year and fall short by a point again? Or are we gonna stay working hard and see can we go to a different level?," he said.
"Everybody will expect Offaly to win but we'll have to make sure we're in the right frame of mind for London."
SCORERS - Westmeath: J Heslin 0-5 (2fs), J Connellan 0-3, P Sharry (1 '45) 0-2, D Corroon, K Martin, J Dolan 0-1 each. Offaly: N Dunne 0-6 (5fs), P Cunningham 0-2, J Moloney, N McNamee, B Allen, G Guilfoyle 0-1 each.
WESTMEATH - D Quinn 6; K Daly 7, F Boyle 6, J Gonoud 8; J Dolan 8, A Stone 6, K Maguire 7; D Corroon 7, G Egan 6; D Lynch 6, J Connellan 8, C McCormack 5; P Sharry 7, Kieran Martin 7, J Heslin 8. Subs: J Egan 5 for Lynch (39), B Sayeh 6 for McCormack (56), D Daly for Egan (64), P Fagan for Daly (65), L Dolan for Connellan (67).
OFFALY - A Mulhall 6; S Pender 6, E Rigney 7, B Darby 7; N Darby 6, P Cunningham 8, J O'Connor 7; E Carroll 7, N Smith 7; M Brazil 6, N Dunne 7, J Moloney 7; N McNamee 6, G Guilfoyle 6, B Allen 6. Subs: A Sullivan 6 for Guilfoyle (BC, 43), N Bracken 6 for Brazil (52), S Doyle 6 for Allen (61), C Donohoe for Dunne (BC 71).
REF - P O'Sullivan (Kerry)