Saturday 17 November 2018

End of 120 years' hurt

EAMONN SWEENEY WE thought we'd seen historic before. We hadn't really. We thought we'd seen ground-breaking. Well, ground doesn't often get broken like this. In fact, there can only be two more days like this in GAA history. Westmeath were one of just three counties who had never won a provincial senior title. Now Wicklow and Fermanagh stand alone.

It was the breakthrough to top all breakthroughs. OK, so counties have won their first All-Irelands in recent decades. But those counties knew what it was like to win provincial honours. Westmeath, on the other hand, have never won anything at senior level. Not a thing.

There has been no Westmeath senior campaign which has ended with a target being achieved, no trophy being borne home in triumph, no team whose picture can hang on pub walls as proof of success. Not until now. Not until July 24 2004 became the date when Westmeath finally knew how it felt to be winners.

Richard Stakelum famously greeted Tipperary's first Munster title in sixteen years with the words, "The famine is over." What Westmeath have endured makes the famine of other counties look more like minor spells of peckishness. There was a song a few years back which described the failures of the English soccer team as "thirty years of hurt." Thirty years? How about one hundred and twenty years of hurt. And those years never stopped Westmeath dreaming either.

On the road to July 24 there have been some heartbreaks, none more so than the ones which bedevilled this team in recent seasons. So when, in the first minute of injury-time Laois wing-back Kevin Fitzpatrick strode through with only 'keeper Gary Connaughton to beat, we thought of Ollie Murphy's last gasp goal and of Dessie Dolan's fatal free and flinched. But this time there was no sting in the tale for Westmeath. Fitzpatrick's shot flew wide and Westmeath must have known it was going to be their day.

It was in first half injury-time that they must have suspected the sporting Gods were finally going to relent. They entered that three-minute period 0-5 to 0-3 down after a nervous first half performance. Then Dolan kicked a lovely point on the turn to begin a scoring spree of extraordinary proportions in a match mainly marked by attacking incompetence and miserly defence.

In the next sixty seconds Dolan levelled and then Denis Glennon kicked one of his specials, awkward of delivery and quixotic of trajectory, over the bar from wide on the right wing. And when the magnificent Michael Ennis stormed up from wing-back to put Westmeath two points clear at the break the tide had turned irrevocably their way. Had Fitzpatrick's late shot gone in it would have been a gross injustice.

Still, gross injustice hasn't been a stranger to Westmeath in the past. But a victory like this serves to take the tragic cast off old defeats, to make the county's journey look meaningful, to honour the heroes who toiled when the idea of a Leinster title for Westmeath seemed as impossible as landing a Moate man on Mars.

This was Michael Ennis's victory and Rory O'Connell's and Alan Mangan's and Dessie Dolan's and Damien Healy's. But it also belonged to Spike Fagan and Larry Giles and Ger Heavin. Heck, it belonged to hurlers like Jobber McGrath and David Kilcoyne too. It validated their efforts, saluted their excellence.

And if there will hardly be a more remarkable county story than Westmeath's, there is also something fantastical about the tale of their manager. Less than a year ago Páidí Ó Sé, a man who had given his life to Kerry football, watched his team slide to spiritless defeat and had to endure being attacked by a sideline intruder as well. It's hard to imagine the pain a driven man like Ó Sé must have endured that Sunday.

Yesterday, he was back with a county which is the antithesis of his home place. Westmeath were underlings when Kerry were aristocrats. But no Kingdom team in recent years has displayed anything like the spirit Páidí Ó Sé has instilled into his unfancied charges. There were plenty of intruders who'd like to have got hold of Páidí yesterday as well. Every man, woman and child in Westmeath felt like hugging him when that final whistle blew.

Laois had been in a similar position last year, spurred on by a hunger born of long failure. They couldn't replicate it or compete with the forces driving Westmeath. Relying on ability alone, they wilted like a lettuce leaf on a hot pan. All the stars were Westmeath men, Donal O'Donoghue continuing to put himself into pole position for an All-Star, Michael Ennis subduing Ross Munnelly, Rory O'Connell refusing to let Laois field a ball in the middle, Dolan orchestrating the attack and Alan Mangan, the livewire corner-forward showing that every big day produces a surprise hero. Mangan ended with four points from play and he was the man who finally put his county on the scoreboard, taking on a shot in the twenty-second minute when the team seemed stalled in the starting gates.

That shot set the wheels of history rolling. In Tubberclair, in Mullingar, in Ballinagore, Rochfortbridge, Castledaly, Garrycastle, Tang, Tyrrellspass and Athlone they've got 120 years worth of celebration to catch up on.

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