Sunday 25 February 2018

'Farmer John' bullish about path taken by resurgent Westmeath

Westmeath boss Tom Cribbin, who John Heslin says has brought them to a new level
Westmeath boss Tom Cribbin, who John Heslin says has brought them to a new level
'I love playing football,' says Westmeath's John Heslin. 'So whenever I go out onto the pitch I try and play football rather than fulfilling anyone's ideas of me or anything like that'
Colm Keys

Colm Keys

The legendary Kerry footballer Paddy Bawn Brosnan was never in any doubt as to what constituted the perfect team.

Being from Dingle, 'the Bawn' was a man of the land and a man of the sea, thus the preferable component pieces were distilled into three categories - 'a few farmers, a few fishermen and a college boy to kick the frees!

The fishermen have long since drifted from the inter-county sphere and the 'college boys' have largely taken over, with a sprinkling of teachers, sports performance graduates and professionals thrown into the mix.

Farmers are in a small minority. Former Meath footballer and long-established analyst Colm O'Rourke, from an agricultural background himself, routinely bemoans the dearth of natural core strength in the sport derived from manual labour.

John Heslin bucks that trend. Or should we say 'Dr John!'.

Currently doing a four-year PhD on 'heifer puberty' at the Teagasc facility outside Trim, having completed a four-year degree course in Agricultural Science in UCD, Heslin grew up on a 50-acre farm just outside Mullingar and still works out of there on a part-time basis.


But the PhD absorbs much of his time now. The idea that Gaelic footballers have 'softened' as labour intensive functions recede draws a smile from the 23-year-old.

"I haven't come across too many soft players anyway!" he says.

"At the moment my trials are outdoors and there's a lot of outdoor work and a bit of heavy lifting at times as well. You've to manage that. Some days you come to training knowing you are after putting in a heavy workload.

"My father always said, 'ah, sure, we were working hard on building sites or farm yards', or whatever they were doing. A lot of modern players have to use the gym, more for injury prevention and stuff like that."

Heslin's talent has never been in question. In recent years he has lit up the local championships in Westmeath with stirring performances for St Loman's - scoring 2-16 in a 2013 semi-final, 3-9 in a quarter-final last year.

But it took the landmark Leinster semi-final win over Meath just under two weeks ago to really announce his arrival at this level.

His coach at UCD, John Divilly, has suggested in the past that he doesn't realise how good he can be. When Tom Cribbin lashed out after the League defeat to Roscommon about senior players not taking enough responsibility, some in the county wondered if Heslin was one of the players the manager had in mind.

"I wouldn't really be looking at that myself," Heslin insist. "I love playing football, so whenever I go out onto the pitch I try and play football rather than fulfilling anyone's ideas of me or anything like that.

"I have a great time for John Divilly and he's a great manager. I don't have to live up to what anyone thinks or to anyone's expectations."

His love of home, football and the land short-circuited a spell in the AFL between 2011 and early 2012 that never really got off the ground.

Homesickness kicked in during pre-season with Melbourne club Richmond and there were contractual issues in the background too, but a streak of stubbornness ensured he stayed until the training cycle was complete, even though he knew he was going home.

"I made sure I let them know that. I did it all, I purposely stayed to the very last day, went through the hard stuff," he recalls.

"They couldn't believe I was actually leaving because they said 'the easy part is now, why are you leaving? - it's literally games, recovery, train, game, what are you going for?'.

"It was pretty tough because at that age I had no real pre-season in Ireland. I was training and playing all year round. I never had to go through the mad running I have to do now because I'm not playing as much as I did when I was that age. It was a big change in Australia.

"The thing is, the lad beside me is not going through the mental challenges of moving away from home and your friends at that young age."

He went out in the summer of 2011, interrupting his studies in Dublin and, by his own admission, that was too early, leaving him with too long a run-in to the following season.

His mistake, the club's mistake, he feels. The experience, though, has made him appreciate what he has.

"It was tough but you'd like to think it made you bigger, better and stronger," he reflects.

"I knew no better. I thought I was doing the right thing. I couldn't be disappointed with my decision. I am now doing a doctorate, which is a level 10, pushing out the boundaries both in education and, I like to think, the sporting field as well.

"I am enjoying what I'm doing and surrounded by good people. What more could you want?

"So if I learned to appreciate what I had here, was that enough? I wouldn't regret my decision at all.

"That's what it's all about: you are going to learn something every day and it's not learning two plus two, it's something that will improve you as a player and a person. We have that with Westmeath at the moment. I'd like to think it matured me a lot as a person."

He never sensed a project coming apart at the seams when Westmeath dropped a League division for the second successive season in April after losing to Roscommon.

Cribbin's harsh words, followed by an apology in Mayo a few days earlier, crystallised the sense of implosion prevalent inside and outside the county.

"It was a low enough point all right, it just didn't go according to plan," Heslin concedes.

"But falling apart? I don't think it could have fallen apart because we have such good men at the helm.

"The county board have surrounded us with great people and it has really rubbed off on the players.

"Players have developed, not just as footballers but as people as well. We really have developed as people over the course of the year, which is an unbelievable addition, not something which is highlighted enough in the GAA.

"It's one thing we've noticed this year here that people have really brought us on and that we've learned a lot.

"Tom is the main man and it shows in his life away from football, that he is able to manage people, able to manage a project and that's what he's coming here to do, pick us up from where we were and bring us up to new places, new level.

"So far, so good, that's what he's done."

The explosive Cribbin interview was not, in Heslin's estimation, designed to get a reaction.


"I wouldn't say he was trying to get at any players. If it was a reaction he was looking for it's a reaction he got, and he'd be a happy man, but I don't think that's what he was looking for.

"Everyone is allowed their opinion. Look, people are going to have opinions about everything, about individuals, about set-ups.

"Sure for all anyone knows Tom was coming into us after the interview telling us we were great lads. You just don't know what's going on behind closed doors."

Beating Meath had historical significance for the county and for Heslin to slip over the border the next morning was special.

"I went in on the Monday after the game and Meath people were congratulating me. That's fantastic. But I felt I had to get straight back to earth and get the recovery done so I trained that day," he explains.

"We are striving to improve and that's the one thing Gerry Duffy (motivation speaker part of the backroom team) has always said to us. There's no point going out there not trying to improve.

"We really can push things further on again."

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