Luke Dempsey: It's our best ever chance to beat Royals
Former boss thinks Cribbin's Westmeath can finally overcome Meath in championship action
Nine years' involvement with Westmeath at all age grades has brought plenty of highlights to Luke Dempsey's managerial portfolio. But he still has one regret: Meath.
If ever a Westmeath manager could end the hex their next-door neighbours held over them, it was Dempsey. No wins over your rival in the history of the Leinster senior championship is a frightening statistic, but after he pulled on the senior manager's bib in 2001 on the back of All-Ireland minor and U-21 glory in 1995 and 1999, he thought he could be the one to crack it.
In his three years in charge of the seniors, he got six shots at the Royals. In 2001, they lost by a point in the Leinster quarter-final, but the sides met again in the All-Ireland quarter-final. Meath finally won out after a replay.
A year later, Meath proved too strong in the Leinster quarter-final, while the 2003 drawn game will forever be remembered for Dessie Dolan's missed free for victory. Again Meath won that replay.
Perhaps it was fitting that Dempsey's last Leinster game in charge of Carlow also ended in defeat to Meath, but he really sees 2001 as the one that got away.
A win over Meath in '01 would have set up an All-Ireland semi-final against a Kerry side dotted with players that Westmeath had already beaten in the U-21 final two years earlier. Whatever could or would have transpired, all dreams were dashed by the Royals.
"That 2001 team was definitely fit to win a Leinster title if not an All-Ireland title, but we ran out of players after so many matches in the qualifiers," Dempsey recalls.
"That year we had a sort of an epic campaign, three matches against Meath and almost had them beaten twice. We went in depleted for the replay and the rest is history.
"Then in 2003 we had a chance really to put it to bed. We had a fantastic performance from Dessie Dolan, he scored 1-7 that day, but then he will always be labelled with the free he missed to win the match.
"It was two great teams that clashed, but Westmeath were just unfortunate not to get over the finishing line. It was ironic that when I left, 2004 was the first year in four that Westmeath didn't get Meath in the championship and subsequently won it.
"My regret is 2001, having not won a Leinster or indeed an All-Ireland with that team because it definitely was good enough in my opinion."
The year after Dempsey resigned as Westmeath manager, Páidí Ó Sé took over and led them to their sole Leinster title. He never got the chance to face the Royals in his two seasons in charge, and since then only Ó Sé's number two, Tomás Ó Flatharta, has had the chance to test out their neighbour's mettle. That 2009 qualifier defeat ended his four years in charge.
Wins over Louth and Wexford means Tom Cribbin has been handed the opportunity to end the 127 years without a win against Meath, but Dempsey believes the current crop of Lakesmen can reach the Leinster final and finally topple the men in green and gold.
"This is the best chance ever to get to a Leinster final because it is a Meath team with very few household names unlike that period in 2001 to 2004.
"They also have a lot of injuries, they are struggling to find a strong midfield pairing, and this is a Meath team that has struggled through several matches in the league, and against Wicklow in the last round.
"So I think this is a fantastic chance for Westmeath given that their confidence is high. Tom Cribbin has done a marvellous job in restoring that belief and we have a great chance."
The fact that Dempsey refers to Westmeath as 'we' should not disguise his true colours. He is often referred to as a 'Westmeath native', but he is in fact Kildare-born. Having so much success, but also displaying so much scar tissue earned representing Westmeath, means he cannot help but carry a candle for his adopted county.
"I am a Kildare native, I've always loved Kildare and I'll be shouting for them too on Sunday," he says.
"When I was ten I moved to Carlow and it was only when I got the job in Westmeath in 1981 and moved here the following year that I formed the connection."
A Westmeath resident, Dempsey is a maths teacher at St Joseph's SC in Rochfortbridge and after inter-county stints with Longford and Carlow, and guiding Moorefield to the Kildare club title last year, he's back in the county as manager of St Loman's in Mullingar.
He stepped down as Westmeath manager after the '03 season when the county board asked him to interview for his own job. But now he's back preparing players like John Heslin, Paul Sharry and Shane Dempsey for the inter-county scene in Westmeath. Some day he'd love another crack as county bainisteoir.
"This is my first time back managing in the county since I left, and to be honest I would love to get back involved with a county squad at some stage, but that is up to the county board. Those three years of Meath defeats weighed heavily on me because I would have hoped that team would go on and win an All-Ireland. They had done it at minor and U-21 level and that is the kind of confident mood you would be in. But the defeats to Meath did take its toll in that regard.
"I felt after that it was best to move on given the feelings I had about players and how members of the county board felt.
"People would always say, 'They were wrong to get rid of you', but it was actually my own decision. It was me that stepped down rather than being forced to leave.
"But now having watched the lads, I feel they are getting better and they are finishing strongly in matches which is a very good sign. Tom Cribbin has really steadied the ship and has used his man-management experience to regain confidence among the senior squad.
"Sunday will be a tough test, but I think we are improving in every match and we have every chance of winning."