Sunday 18 February 2018

Hackett wrong man to steady Westmeath ship

Westmeath manager Brendan Hackett, (left) and selector Mattie Fox make their way past local fans at half-time during the O'Byrne Cup game against DCU
Westmeath manager Brendan Hackett, (left) and selector Mattie Fox make their way past local fans at half-time during the O'Byrne Cup game against DCU
Colm Keys

Colm Keys

On the face of it, Brendan Hackett was always facing an unenviable task when he accepted a return to inter-county management last September so long after his previous engagement in Offaly.

Westmeath were already in free fall from the dizzy heights of Division 1 of the National Football League, to where they had gained promotion courtesy of their Division 2 title success in 2008.

After seven straight league defeats in the top flight and two heavy reversals to Dublin and Meath in last year's championship, Tomas O Flaharta didn't waste time in getting out of town on a wet night in Mullingar when they went crashing out of the qualifiers.

Westmeath were a beaten docket, and picking up the pieces, as Hackett has since found out, wouldn't be easy.


Like the national economy they had further to fall before their decline would 'bottom out'. Even now, no one is sure if Division 3 is where they will find a level they are comfortable at.

Coming away from Thurles last Sunday, where progressive Tipperary inflicted Westmeath's 14th consecutive league defeat, two of their more hardened supporters wondered aloud together as to the teams they could possibly beat, given their current predicament, in the qualifiers.

Longford maybe? Leitrim? Clare? Carlow? Maybe four was pushing it, they told themselves. That's a measure of the gradient of their decline, a decline that was inevitable regardless of the sideline stewardship.

Westmeath have simply punched above their weight for too long. These circumstances, and others such as the departure of Dessie Dolan and Denis Glennon, have mitigated against Hackett during his reign.

Add in the premature retirement of John Keane, flagged before Hackett's appointment, and it amounts to an exodus that even fundamentally stronger counties than Westmeath could not easily overcome.

But from the outset, there were very few -- both within Westmeath and outside the county -- who were convinced that he would be a success. It just didn't seem the right fit.

He had been out of mainstream football for a long time and his association had been more with athletics -- where he had been chief executive of Athletics Ireland until January 2008 -- and sports psychology.

At a press conference to unveil him (where he often referred to himself in the third person), Hackett outlined a vision of his role that would be more than just manager of a senior team. He would be a director of football; all things to as many teams as possible. It looked innovative.

No doubt the Westmeath officials who approved him were taken by his glowing CV and the 'extras' he could bring to his party. Hackett had a contacts book that made impressive reading.

Olympic gold medal boxing hero Michael Carruth was enlisted as a masseur but was to provide assistance to aspects of training, Olympic canoeist Eoin Rheinisch was also brought on board and Longford man Mattie Fox, successful in the music business through his association with Christy Moore and the Three Tenors among others, brought that background into the mix.

Along with the well-respected former referee and county secretary Paddy Collins and former player Michael 'Spike' Fagan, who are selectors, the team was complete. But it has provoked much debate within Westmeath as to whether it was all too much for a burgeoning squad. Was it what they needed at that stage of their development?

There was still a lot of experienced players around who were still important to the set up. Boxers, canoeists, band managers and sports psychologists was quite an eclectic mix for 'old dogs' like them to embrace.

And it's the 'old dogs', it seems, who have risen up to bite hardest. Within the Westmeath squad there would be quite a few happy to just get on with the job at hand.

In the background for the last six months has been the absence of Dessie Dolan jnr, irked at the manner in which his father Dessie snr, was not just overlooked for the job -- but wasn't even granted the courtesy of an interview.

Westmeath had taken a decision in the wake of O Flaharta's departure to pursue a candidate from outside the county boundaries, given the relative success of Paidi O Se and O Flaharta.

The analogy of Banquo's ghost may not be appropriate in this case for Hackett. He, after all, came to Westmeath with a blank canvas oblivious to political machinations over Dolan. However, the analogy fits for the Westmeath officials who were so determined to get Hackett on board at the expense of a local man.

Quite why it was decided at a Westmeath Football Board meeting to look 'outside' the county for a replacement for O Flaharta was never quite fully explained.

Even if there were good candidates within, they weren't to be entertained. That was the clear message and one which seemed to hit home forcefully to the Dolans.

A county like Westmeath could not afford to be without Dolan and this has hung like a millstone over the county since last September, regardless of the overtures about progress and building to the future. Dolan, even at 31 years old, is still one of the best forwards in the province. He's a figurehead and a leader and his absence has clearly told.

Inevitably in all of these heaves, there is an unwillingness on the players' behalf to accept their responsibility for such a poor run of form. Like many, they haven't been able to remove their scepticism and embrace what Hackett has to offer.

The success in reaching the Leinster U-21 final -- he fulfilled management duties here too -- perhaps insulated him from an earlier heave. But performances have been little better than results have suggested.

The defeats to Armagh, Donegal and Down were heavy, Tipperary felt like the last straw for many.

Irish Independent

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