Westmeath bank Dublin lesson and drive on to new target
Published 25/07/2015 | 02:30
Five minutes into the second half of the Leinster final, Westmeath were faced with a tough dilemma.
The defensive code that underpinned their approach quite successfully in the first half had been had been unlocked by Dublin as goals by Bernard Brogan and Jack McCaffrey stretched their lead out to 11 points.
It was decision time for Westmeath. Do they abandon their carefully-crafted defensive strategy and drive forward in an attempt to rein in Dublin?
Or do they stay loyal to their game plan, restore some stability and hope they could push on later?
The all-out attack approach had worked brilliantly against Meath in the semi-final when Westmeath recovered from a 10-point deficit to win by four.
However, Dublin are very different to Meath so Westmeath manager Tom Cribbin was aware of the dangers of over-committing to attack.
Dublin had hit Longford for 4-25 and Kildare for 5-18 and were well capable of inflicting similar punishment on Westmeath if the opportunity arose.
That would not only have left Westmeath with an ugly blotch on the Leinster final records landscape, but also risk demoralising the squad.
"We wanted to avoid losing by a very big margin at all costs. If Dublin get a run on a team, they can pull so far out of sight you don't see them. You learn nothing from that," said Cribbin.
So Westmeath continued with their containing game, eventually losing by 2-13 to 0-6, having restricted Dublin to three points in the final half-hour.
It wasn't much consolation to the Westmeath supporters, who had seen their big day lurch into an anti-climax, but Cribbin and his squad were already thinking of buying a new pan and frying different fish.
"Westmeath are in the development stage and we want to do everything we can to build carefully and solidly.
"I know it might not have meant much to outsiders, but I was very pleased with the way the players stuck to the plan during the second half," said Cribbin.
It meant that when they returned to training, they were able to zero in on a few minutes after half-time as the one period that they were really caught out, whereas if they had gone chasing the game and lost by 20-30 points, the entire second half would have left them with nightmare memories.
The qualifier draw brought renewed encouragement when they were paired with Fermanagh, an improving side, but not as formidable as some of the others who had made their way through the 'back door'.
"Of course, we'd take Fermanagh in the draw if we had a choice, just as they would taken us. We both know that.
"This is a great chance for one of us to get to the All-Ireland quarter-final and a game against Kerry probably. Isn't that the sort of progress we all want to be making going into August?" said Cribbin.
He is convinced that every game is crucial in the learning process for a Westmeath side that's in unusual territory, having already played four championship games this summer.
Cribbin believes that the Dublin experience will be invaluable to his players as part of their education and development.
"When you play a team like Dublin, individual players pick up a lot. They know what they have to do to try and become like Dublin. It's easier to work towards that, once you've had the experience. Our fellas got a lot more out of that game that people might think," he said.
Now, the target is to beat Fermanagh and take Westmeath into the quarter-final for the first time since 2006.
The absence of the injured John Heslin is a negative, but it offers an opportunity to someone else, which is also part of the development process.
Few would have thought when Westmeath were relegated to Division 3 in early April that by late July they would be in which an excellent chance of reaching the last eight in the All-Ireland race.
And since it was always highly improbably that they would beat Dublin, this evening's game is actually more important in the broader scheme.
Not only is it against a team at Westmeath's own level, it offers the opportunity to take them back for a second tilt at a super-power next weekend.
"It's exactly where we want to be. We've packed more learning into the last few months that a team might normally get in a few years," said Cribbin.
Westmeath and Fermanagh have clashed only twice previously in championship history, with the Ulster men winning All-Ireland qualifier ties in 2002 and 2013, both in Mullingar.
Ironically, the counties are passing each other on the League standings, with Westmeath headed for Division 3 next year while Fermanagh have been promoted to Division 2.
There's far more important pickings on the menu this evening for two sides that have exceeded championship expectations by quite some distance.
And with the prospect of taking the adventure into August still on the ambitious agenda, it should be quite a contest in Kingspan Breffni Park.