Blossoming of Westmeath not just a happy accident
Hard work behind the scenes is paying off for Lake County, writes Marie Crowe
Five days before Westmeath played Kerry in last year's All-Ireland qualifiers only 14 players were at training. A club game between Mullingar Shamrocks and Tyrellspass was held at the same time and all the county representatives lined out in it.
Manager Pat Flanagan wasn't there either, he was absent for personal reasons, morale was low in the squad and so was confidence. They'd lost to Louth in the opening round of the Leinster championship and facing Kerry in a second-round qualifier looked a daunting experience.
Fast-forward eight months and Westmeath football is in a much healthier state. They are unbeaten in Division 2 and if they emerge victorious over Armagh in Cusack Park today they are guaranteed promotion to the top flight.
For the opening 30 minutes of the qualifier game last July, Kerry failed to register a score from play. By the early stages of the second half, Westmeath had established a six-point lead thanks to a David Glennon penalty. However, a goal by Darran O'Sullivan swung the momentum back in Kerry's favour, and they scraped home by one point.
Although it was a defeat for Westmeath it was a narrow one, and coming so close to beating a team like Kerry saw them end the season on a high.
"I feel we should have beaten Kerry and a lot of people did too," says Flanagan. "But it gave players the boost and the confidence to concentrate on the league this year and have belief that they could achieve."
Along with this confidence Westmeath have a full squad of players to choose from. Last year they had to do without their Garrycastle representatives for most of the league because of the All-Ireland club championship. However, this year they didn't have that problem as the county champions Mullingar Shamrocks were beaten in the first round by Ballymun Kickhams.
"This year we were able to maintain the panel and we had nobody involved in the club championship so we were able to train together and hit the ground running and were able to maintain that form. We've been building a team over the last number of years and they are getting that bit older and stronger."
Also last year John Heslin missed the early stages of the league as he was in Australia but he's been involved this season since the start and has been a huge addition to the side.
"He's doing very well at this moment in time, he's a fine footballer," says Flanagan. "The big thing we need to do is protect him. He's getting a lot of football with the under 21s but he's matured an awful lot from his time Down Under."
Along with Heslin there is only one other senior player on the under 21 panel, Kevin Reilly. This is a big change from last year when they had nine players on both squads.
At the start of the year Flanagan brought in Paralympian and former Westmeath under 21 footballer Mark Rohan to help out. He spoke to the squad and inspired them, made them realise what can be achieved. The work of strength and conditioning coach Joe Quinn is also paying dividends. Westmeath have finished strongly in all of their games, especially against Wexford last week when they were five points down early in the second half and ended up winning by seven.
Although it's still only March, promotion is within their grasp and that's not a bad place to be.