Lake County eye rub of Rohan gold
WESTMEATH manager Pat Flanagan singles out Paralympics double gold medal winner Mark Rohan as the inspiration for his squad of Lake County footballers as they embark on their Allianz League Division 2 campaign on Sunday.
Flanagan believes his team are 'nearly men' in the positive sense of that phrase and his wish for 2013 is that Westmeath end up on the right side of close-fought encounters this season.
Achieving that edge, that break of the ball, or bit of luck can often come down to seemingly insignificant factors that incrementally add up to defining a match, a season, a career.
To quote the immortal words of Al Pacino in the film 'Any Given Sunday': "You find out life's this game of inches. So is football, because in either game, life or football, the margin for error is so small. I mean, one half a step too late or too early and you don't quite make it. One half-second too slow, too fast, you don't quite catch it. The inches we need are everywhere around us. They're in every break of the game, every minute, every second..."
If anybody appreciates that sentiment it's Rohan, whose career as a promising footballer ended when a motorcycle accident in 2001 left him paralysed from the chest down.
Out of the ashes of that devastation, Rohan found an outlet for his courage and competitive spirit in the Paralympic hand-cycling competition, and returned home with two gold medals from the London Games last September.
Rohan (31) is self-effacing and plays down his role with Westmeath, but Flanagan and his players appreciate the value of a sporting hero who has raised the bar for sporting achievement in the county.
"Mark's strength of mentality and attitude is excellent. For him to be part of that set-up and to be bringing that winning mentality to the team, that's where we see his strengths and the opportunity for him to support our guys.
"Westmeath football hasn't won a lot in its history, so we're trying to turn that around.
"We need every guy that has succeeded to help us out and Mark certainly has done that.
"It shows that an ordinary guy coming from an ordinary place can be a superstar – and he is that, he is a superstar, and when he speaks everyone listens.
"It's a small county. People don't normally associate it with a huge amount of success. You read about people like John Joe (Nevin) and Mark, but they're actually here among us.
"In Mark's case, he obviously has his own problems, but as he said himself there's no point in crying about it. He's an inspiration to everybody that he comes in contact with," Flanagan said.
Westmeath operate in the highly competitive Division 2 of the NFL, opening with a home match against Louth at Cusack Park.
This is something of a hardy annual, as Flanagan says: "This is our third year in a row to meet in the first match, so it will always be a good contest.
"There's only been a point or two between us every time we've met, so I can't see it being any different on Sunday. We will have to be at our best if we're to beat them."
Galway, Derry, Longford, Laois, Armagh and Wexford are also in Westmeath's section, so there should be plenty of lively action for the supporters.
Looking at the bigger picture, do Westmeath dare to dream of promotion to Division 1? Or of a Leinster championship?
It can't happen without faith and self-belief – and it's that 'X-factor' that Flanagan hopes will rub off from Rohan's example. "He's been with us on a number of occasions and he's assisted us in our mental preparation more so than anything else.
"I think mental strength is all that these boys require. They have the ability. They're obviously a group of strong, fit footballers and we have a good-quality football team technically, but it takes that little bit extra to get across the line.
"It's about trying to get across that line and get to the other side of it with a point or two points in our favour. If we start doing that, you'll see a lot of progress for Westmeath," Flanagan said.
Meanwhile, what of Rohan himself? Currently, he has an injury that prevents him from training and he's impatient to get back into action. His plan is to travel to Portugal for a two-month training stint before competition gets going in May.
His schedule for the year is geared around the Paracycling World Championships in Quebec, Canada, next August.
He faces a busy competitive season, but will keep a close eye on the Westmeath footballers, as well as Marist College, Athlone after assisting their build-up for the school's Leinster colleges commitments.
Looking towards the Leinster senior championship in the summer, Rohan said: "I'm blown away by the effort everyone's putting in.
"I know Longford are putting in a massive effort, Offaly too, and so are Westmeath and Laois, and then you have the three or four stronger counties in the province.
"I just hope the Westmeath lads get what they deserve. It's nice for a county team to put in the effort and be rewarded every couple of years, just to keep things ticking over in the county."