Westmeath bank on new goal threat
Cribbin’s men must end misfiring run to have any chance of upsetting the odds
It was always going to be a massive challenge for Westmeath, but unless they improve on their miserable their goal-scoring record against Dublin, they could be in serious trouble in Sunday's Leinster final.
Remarkably, no Westmeath forward has scored a Championship goal against Dublin since 1967 when Tommy Dolan's shot beat Paddy Cullen in a Leinster quarter-final in Tullamore.
Westmeath won by a point, but would have to wait until 2004 for their next success against Dublin.
The Lake County's only goal in ten Championship games against Dublin since 1967 was scored by right half-back Michael Ennis in the 2008 Leinster semi-final.
Ennis, who is currently an U-21 selector - under senior manager Tom Cribbin - wasn't aware of his unusual role in the Westmeath-Dublin rivalry, but is confident that his county's modern-day strike force are well capable of compiling a sizeable yield.
Westmeath have already scored a total of 7-54 against Louth, Wexford and Meath, which underlines their attacking potency when they power up to full capacity. Question is: can they maintain it against Dublin?
Kieran Martin scored a total of 3-5 from play against Wexford and Meath, while John Heslin has kicked 1-23, including 0-15 from frees, in three games.
"The encouraging thing is that our lads have taken most of their goal chances when they came along. That's all you can ask. When you do that, you always have a chance," said Ennis.
There's also great satisfaction in Westmeath with the strong finishes in their three Championship games. It points to a high fitness level, which is absolutely essential against Dublin.
"Tom (Cribbin) insisted on that from the start and it's paying off now. You definitely need to be able to stay with Dublin for the full 70 minutes, if you're to have any chance of winning," said Ennis.
As one of a rare breed in Westmeath to have experienced a Championship win over Dublin, Ennis believes that it's crucial for the current team to have total confidence in themselves, even if they are up against the All-Ireland favourites.
"We were convinced we could beat Dublin in 2004. We had done well enough over the previous few years and when Páidí O Sé came in, he raised our self-belief levels so that we were confident we could take on anyone," he said.
"We hadn't beaten Offaly for something like 55 years but we managed that and then beat Dublin. Once you get a run going, it does wonders for your confidence. This Westmeath team will be feeling the same now."
Nonetheless, they face a daunting challenge against a Dublin squad seeking a 10th Leinster title in 11 seasons. And while Westmeath have hit a rich scoring streak this summer, Dublin have been on it for much longer.
Their average score in eight Leinster games since the start of the 2013 campaign is 3-19. It has risen to 4-23 this year, leaving Cribbin and his defensive planners needing lots of pencils and blank sheets of paper as they devise a counter-strategy.
Ennis believes that Westmeath would benefit from setting up broadly similar to the structure Cork deployed against Kerry last Sunday.
"It frustrated Kerry. You have to try something similar with Dublin. You have to drop one or two players back but, at the same time, you can't allow Stephen Cluxton to pick out his men unmarked from kick-outs," he said.
"You need to push up on Dublin's kick-outs and then get back quickly. It calls for very high fitness levels, but Westmeath have them."
He also insists that not showing Dublin too much respect is important.
"If you stand off them, they'll walk on you. We've seen that happen so often over the past few years," said Ennis.
"They are a hugely talented team, but you have to not only believe you can match them but go out and show it.
"No one outside Westmeath is giving the lads any chance, but that won't matter to them. They'll fully believe in themselves."
Those who suspect that this will be a Westmeath wipeout point to the first-half of the semi-final, when Meath looked as if they would win on a landslide score. If Dublin were to enjoy a similar degree of superiority, there will be no way back for Westmeath.
"That's why it's very important not to concede early goals on Sunday. Once Dublin get a run on a team with a goal or two, they are very hard to contain. So you have to try to stop that from happening," said Ennis.
His senior inter-county career ran from 1999, when he made his debut as a sub against a Laois team managed by Cribbin, to 2012, when he captained Westmeath on a day when they ran Kerry to a point in a qualifier tie in Mullingar,
In between, the unquestioned highlight was helping Westmeath to win the Leinster title for the first time in 2004.
That victory changed the entire dynamic in the county and while it dropped well off that pace in recent years, Ennis feels that the positive memories of 11 years ago are helpful now.
"No one thought we could win Leinster that year. It's the same now. The atmosphere in Westmeath since beating Meath has been brilliant. And the way the lads won made it all the better," he said.
"They did to Meath what Meath had done to us so often - catching them late on. It was a huge boost to everyone.
"Sunday will be a bigger test but there's plenty room for improvement in this Westmeath team. Hopefully, a lot of it will come against Dublin."