Dolan strike helps Kelly's men fend off Laois in 'first leg'
O'Byrne Cup: Westmeath 1-13 Laois 1-12
At one stage in the second-half at Cusack Park on Saturday, Westmeath led by seven points. That they won by one is notable because the draw for this year's O'Byrne Cup has thrown up something of an anomaly.
As the last two teams out of the hat, Westmeath and Laois were put into a group all on their own. So while the other counties will face two different teams in this competition, Westmeath and Laois will play each other home and away, with the aggregate score deciding who progresses.
Westmeath manager Colin Kelly wasn't impressed with the format, on the basis that he'd like to see how his new charges react in as many different scenarios as possible.
Here Westmeath were the better team for long periods. They went in six points up at half-time, with Luke Loughlin in fine form. James Dolan grabbed the half's vital score as he got on the end of a fine Westmeath move to ensure they went in at the break 1-7 to 0-4 clear.
Kelly's men looked in control for long periods of the second-half as well. When Callum McCormack notched his third point of the day it put them seven points clear with just over 10 minutes to play. At that stage the game was losing its rhythm as both sides made a number of changes.
However, one long punt found Paul Kingston in space and he smashed the ball to the roof of the net. Suddenly, Laois were growing in confidence as Westmeath started to feel the heat.
A classy Loughlin score restored the home side's lead to three points, but after what had been a dull encounter Laois came on the charge.
They hit the post with one effort, while Gary Walsh landed his eighth and ninth point of the game to cut the gap to the minimum and set up a tense finale. Westmeath held on, but their late surge meant that the return leg in Laois is finely balanced.
For Laois manager John Sugrue, it was a first look at his side in action. He revealed that his men hadn't played so much as a challenge match before they took to the pitch.
"We were growing into the game as it went on," reflected the Portlaoise-based Kerry native.
"We haven't played a competitive game yet, be it a challenge game or anything like that. We have just trained pre-Christmas so it was reasonable. Not happy with the result, but a reasonable performance by a lot of fellas."
Sugrue has been involved with various county set-ups and trained Kerry under Pat O'Shea in 2007 and 2008. He also managed South Kerry to a Kerry SFC title, but this is his first foray into inter-county management.
Laois start their season in Division 4 and Sugrue hinted that he feels they should be competing at a higher level.
"It's a new venture into inter-county management for me. I have a few ideas on how we can freshen up the game of football a small bit and maybe this bunch of players haven't achieved what they should have the last couple of years. That's a maybe and there's a question mark over that.
"We are going to try and see if we can get this bunch of players to play better. It's exciting. At inter-county football you are dealing with very driven men who like to play and like to train so we'll see how it goes."
"We are just preparing at the moment. Getting out of it? We'll see how we go, of course it's on our minds, but our preparation for Division 4 is what is on our minds right now."
Colin Kelly is straight back into management, having parted ways with his native Louth at the end of their 2017 season. And he admitted he would prefer to be taking on new opposition next weekend.
"It's not ideal, we wouldn't like to be playing Laois again next week and not because it's Laois, it's just (to get) new experiences and different things. Already lads will be getting familiar with what way the teams are playing and I suppose there could be a bit better thought put into it."
Westmeath start life in Division 3 and take on Derry on January 28. And regardless of what happens next week, that is Kelly's priority.
"Today we had a squad of 25 so (next week) we'll get game time into as many of the lads as we can and be pushing on towards the Derry match."
SCORERS - Westmeath: L Loughlin 0-5 (1f), J Dolan 1-0, C McCormack 0-3, G Leech (2f), F Coyne 0-2 each, D Corroon 0-1
Laois: G Walsh 0-9 (7f), P Kingston 1-0, B Glynn 0-2, A Dowling 0-1
Westmeath - E Carberry; K Daly, S Duncan, M McCallon; J Dolan, G Carr, N Mulligan; A Stone, D Corroon; G Leech, L Loughlin, N Scally; C McCormack, K Martin, J Egan Subs: F Coyne for Leech (43), C Shanley for Martin (51), C Slevin for Egan (55), J Marshment for Scally (59), B Sayeh for Stone (65), B Kavanagh for Loughlin (70).
Laois - G Brody; D Holland, M Timmons, R Fennell; T Collins, B Glynn, O Buggy; J O'Loughlin, P McEvoy; A Dowling, P Kingston, A Farrell; S Moore, G Walsh, R Donagher Subs: E Lowry for Buggy (25), D Luttrell for McEvoy (41), C Finn for Timmons (47), R Murray for Farrell (51), D Whelan for Donagher (53), F Crowley for Glynn (59).
Ref - P Maguire (Longford)