Friday 6 December 2019

Westmeath goalkeeper Gary Connaughton shaping up for fight in 'square'

Gary Connaughton. Photo: Sportsfile
Gary Connaughton. Photo: Sportsfile
Donnchadh Boyle

Donnchadh Boyle

IF they had a union, Westmeath stopper Gary Connaughton would have the goalkeepers out on strike right now.

"First they moved the penalty in closer, and now take the square-ball rule. We haven't been having much luck," bemoaned the 2008 All Star. "I'm not sure how this change will work out, but it makes things more difficult for goalkeepers anyway."

With the new rule approved by Congress last month, this is the first weekend it will come under the microscope as a host of county's start their championship campaigns, with Westmeath meeting Louth in Navan on Sunday.

Connaughton's gripe is deepened by the fact he will be without the protection of regular full-back and DCU Sigerson cup-winning captain Kieran Gavin. John Gaffey, who captained Garrycastle to March's All-Ireland club final, is likely to deputise but the absence of Gaffey's clubmate Dessie Dolan continues.

Dolan has been the Lake County's talisman for much of his career and has been involved with the senior set-up in the midlands since making his debut in a National League game against Antrim in 1998.

However, the Tubberclair man insists Dolan will return to the county fold at some stage.

"That's definitely not the last of Dessie Dolan in a Westmeath jersey. He's had a long campaign with the club and county last year and he's just taking some time. If he came back now he obviously feels he wouldn't be himself and that's fair enough. I haven't been talking to him but he'll be back whether it's later this year or next year. But first and foremost, he deserves a break."

As long as Dolan's self-imposed exile remains in place, Connaughton (pictured below), Michael Ennis and Denis Glennon are the only survivors from the county's famous provincial breakthrough in 2004.

There is something of a generation gap with the new batch of players -- some of whom were involved in an ill-advised public criticism of manager Pat Flanagan on Twitter -- but Connaughton has high hopes for the next wave.

"We have a lot of lads 23 and under and then lads around 28 or 29 and above, so there's a bit of a gap there. But they are good footballers. Like I didn't make my Westmeath debut until I was 25, some of these lads are coming in at 20 or 21," he said.

St Loman's youngster and one time AFL prospect John Heslin is probably the most exciting talent to come out of the county since Dolan and he helped Westmeath maintain their Division 2 status to the surprise of some.

"John has come back and done well for us but the whole panel knuckled down well and dug out the results when we were expected to go down. That standard of football will stand to them next year too, because there are a lot of good teams there," added Connaughton.

Westmeath's fortunes have been closely aligned to Louth in recent seasons. Both teams were promoted from Division 3 in 2011 and Louth also survived against the odds in this year's league.

However, the Wee County have had the Indian sign over them, winning four of the last five meetings in the past two seasons.

Louth return to Navan where they secured their league status with a memorable win over Meath. However, they have lost a few to emigration since that result, including Brian White and Brian Donnelly, though they still go into the game as the bookmaker's favourites.

"For whatever reason we just can't seem to get over the line against them, but there hasn't been much in it. We have to back ourselves. We were told we were certs for relegation and looked what happened there."

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