Sport Gaelic Football

Friday 15 December 2017

Where did it all go wrong?

Westmeath's Michael Ennis and Gary Connaughton jump over the bench for the team photograph before their Division Two game against
Donegal. PAUL MOHAN / SPORTSFILE
Westmeath's Michael Ennis and Gary Connaughton jump over the bench for the team photograph before their Division Two game against Donegal. PAUL MOHAN / SPORTSFILE
Martin Breheny

Martin Breheny

TWO years ago this week, Westmeath footballers were preparing for a Division 2 NFL final against Dublin, having already secured promotion to Division 1.

This week they were awaiting the appointment of a new manager, having lost 14 successive NFL games in two seasons, a sequence which has sucked them down to Division 3.

Now, they have just over six weeks to prepare for the Leinster championship clash with Wicklow or Carlow in a game which could either signal the end of the tailspin or leave them with little option but to write off 2010, since it's most unlikely they would make progress in the qualifiers from such a low base.

Westmeath's decline has been so spectacular that the county's supporters are now wondering if the damage suffered since the start of 2009 will have serious long-term consequences.

optimism

The performances by the U-21s, who reached this season's Leinster final where they lost to Dublin, has generated some optimism, but nobody is quite sure if it will be anywhere near enough to restore confidence in a county which won only one of 17 league and championship games since the start of 2009.

With the exception of Kilkenny, who aren't a competitive force, it's by far the worst record of any county.

Westmeath's sole victory came against Wicklow last year and, even then, they were lucky to take the game to extra-time against opponents who were decimated by injuries. Westmeath edged to victory, but it was to be the briefest of reprieves as they lost the Leinster semi-final to Dublin by an embarrassing 27 points.

It was Westmeath's biggest ever hammering in the championship and the largest winning margin since Meath beat Kilkenny by 34 points in 1979. The All-Ireland qualifiers offered Westmeath no respite as Meath beat them by 10 points.

Westmeath's defensive frailties all year surprised the football world as they had been extremely miserly in 2008. Their solidity was recognised in the selection of Gary Connaughton in goal and John Keane at left full-back in that year's All Star team.

Tomas O Flaharta resigned at the end of the 2009 championship, presenting the county board with a crucial decision. The squad required rebuilding, so it was important to appoint the right man who, at the very least, would stabilise the team in Division 2.

Dessie Dolan Snr, who had been overlooked for years for the manager's job, seemed to be the obvious choice, not least because he had done well with Leitrim over previous seasons. However, he was once again ignored in favour of an outsider in the form of Brendan Hackett, who had been out of inter-county management for a long time.

It was a surprise decision, rendered all the more curious when it was announced that Olympic boxing gold medallist, Michael Carruth, would be part of the backroom team.

Hackett's plan was to work to a longer-term strategy, but, in the meantime, there had to be a bottoming out rather than a further decline. Regrettably for Westmeath, the downturn continued as they failed to win a single game, leading to unrest among the squad.

The fact that Dessie Dolan Jnr and Denis Glennon, Westmeath's two best forwards, were no longer making themselves available for selection, added to the pressure on the management, who quit last weekend.

The big question now centres on how much damage Westmeath have suffered through the dreadful series of results since 2009, followed by the departure mid-season of a manager who was only appointed late last year.

Ironically, Westmeath's depression comes at a time when the Leinster draw has handed them an excellent chance of making progress as, if they beat Carlow or Wicklow, they would play Kildare, Louth or Longford for a place in the final.

It will certainly be a big incentive for the new management, especially as they can expect to have Dolan and Glennon back on board. Dolan has been hampered by a knee injury this year, but played for his club Garrycastle last Sunday.

A fully-fit Dolan and a re-energised Glennon would greatly improve a Westmeath attack which averaged less than 12 points in their seven League games.

Ultimately though, the big test will be in regard to Westmeath's confidence reserves, which must have been badly hit by the worst run of results for many years.

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