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Maroons eye a Royal reprieve

WESTMEATH selector Michael 'Spike' Fagan has admitted there's a mood of pessimism among football supporters in the county ahead of Saturday night's critical derby clash with Meath -- but the players themselves are looking forward to the Navan showdown.

The beleaguered midlanders have launched their NFL Division Two campaign with consecutive defeats -- by seven points to Donegal and a galling 17 to Armagh -- which has upped the ante on new manager Brendan Hackett within months of his appointment.

"The fans out there are demanding instant success," Fagan told the Evening Herald. "We have lost our first two matches. None of the fans give us a chance against Meath this weekend and that suits us better -- there's a lack of pressure."

Westmeath have never beaten Meath in senior championship action, but when the sides last met in league combat, two years ago, they recorded a first NFL victory over their vaunted neighbours since 1973.

However, they are a distant 11/2 bet with the bookies to repeat that result this weekend. Star forwards Dessie Dolan and Denis Glennon have absented themselves from the panel while several younger panellists -- including Conor Lynam, Tommy McDaniel, Ger Egan and James Durkan -- are set to miss Saturday night's game as the county's U21s also face Meath, in a Leinster quarter-final at Mullingar, earlier that afternoon.

"It's unfortunate that we have had three weeks' preparation and now come up against a bogey team in Meath but without the few big-name players and without the under-21s. So we have to make the best of the present squad, and I'm hoping some of the lads will step up to the plate," Fagan remarked.

"All the players are looking forward to the match -- I don't think many supporters are looking forward to the match. I have heard a few say will they bother travelling over.

"If we lose three matches on the trot, people will say 'forget about them for another year'. But, personally, I feel these fellas have a great ambition to work hard and they want to improve.

"And I think we can improve things. It's just that time is against us. Whether it happens this year ... short term we may lose out, but in the long term there will be benefits," he maintained.

During his own lengthy playing career the legendary Spike was a beacon of hope amid some dark days for Westmeath, and his talent was recognised with selection for the Irish Compromise Rules team (as it was then known) in the 1986, '87 and '90 series against Australia.

After a stellar decade, by Westmeath standards, there are fears the county could be heading for another slump, but Fagan spies promise in the U21 team that faces Meath.

As for the senior clash that follows, he argued: "It's 15 versus 15; always the same. I think we just have to get our fellas motivated.

"Some day we will get this (Meath) monkey off our back, and I don't think it will be too long. Whether it happens this weekend, I'm not sure."