'They should go on the attack for their own development' - Former Westmeath boss wants Lakes to attack Dublin
TOMÁS Ó FLATHARTA recalls a conversation with the late Páidí Ó Sé, in the winter of 2003/04, not long after the Kerry legend had accepted the keys to Cusack Park.
“I remember Páidí saying to me, ‘Look, I don’t give a fiddler’s f*** about the league, but have them fit for me for the summer’.”
Ó Flatharta, a fellow son of west Kerry, had accepted the offer to join Ó Sé in Westmeath as his de facto No 2. His job was to get their bodies right for the championship; and that he did. They beat Offaly for the first time in 55 years. They won Leinster for the first time ever.
And in between, they ambushed the Dubs ...
But that was then - the summer of 2004 - when Dublin in their last year under Tommy Lyons were perceived as vulnerable, not just in do-or-die battles but in their own province too.
Whereas Dublin today are chasing a record seventh consecutive Leinster SFC.
They are also 70 minutes away from a seventh successive championship win over Westmeath.
That, in itself, is no surprise: 2004 was an outlier, the first time it had occurred since 1967.
But what is telling is the scoreboard chasm between two counties who have met each other more often in the last decade than in any previous one.
In their last six SFC collisions, bookended by a drab 2006 All-Ireland quarter-final and last year’s Leinster final, Dublin have amassed ten goals and 105 points. Westmeath, by impoverished contrast, has tallied 1-49.
The cumulative margin is 83 points. Their 2008 Leinster semi-final is the only clash that could be deemed a true contest: Westmeath led by four points in the first half, and by one during the third quarter, only for Paul Caffrey’s men to finish the stronger and edge it by two.
Whereas the other five have been double-digit affairs, none more ghoulish than another Leinster semi-final in 2009. As in their earlier league clash that April, Dublin won by 27 points.
Having served as Ó Sé’s sidekick for two years and as manager for the next four, Ó Flatharta knows all about the good, the bad and the ugly of Westmeath’s relationship with Dublin.
Thirteen years on, that championship ambush in ’04 stands out as probably the most memorable day with his adopted midlanders. Up there if not better than lifting the Delaney Cup later that summer.
This was partly because of something personal to himself and Páidí - the “Dublin and Kerry” rivalry; the notion of “city guys against the boggers”. But there was also the fact that “Westmeath beating Dublin in a Leinster championship game was kind of unheard of.”
Of the match itself, he recalls: “We couldn’t stay with them at all for the first 15 minutes or so, but we made a few changes in the back-line and going in at half-time, I think we were two points down but we were coming at them.
“There were a few key moments in the second half,” he adds. “I think it was David Mitchell who got an elbow into the face and he was knocked down and the crowd were furious. But he just got up and kicked it over the bar from about 35 yards. And Paul Conway won a great ball over his head and kicked it over as well.”
Ever since, though, the ball has been flying over the other black spot. Promoted to manager, Ó Flatharta worked wonders to coax Westmeath through the ‘back door’ in 2006.
“We scored very, very little in Croke Park against Dublin. It was an achievement getting to the quarter-final, I suppose,” he surmises.
The best Westmeath team he managed, in 2008, grew from inauspicious O’Byrne Cup beginnings (losing to Dublin by ten points) and a losing Allianz League start (also to the Dubs, by two) to eventually land the Division 2 title.
They did so in Navan, at the expense of a suspension-riddled Dublin, all of which left them in upbeat mood for their subsequent Leinster semi-final.
“It was a really, really tight game. We were ahead for a good bit of it … very disappointing,” is Ó Flatharta’s recall.
How then, just a year later, could they lose to the same rival by 5-22 to 0-10 in the league and by 4-26 to 0-11 in Leinster?
“When a smaller county has a good year, it’s very difficult to follow it up again the following year, for some strange reason,” he reflects. “2009 was just a disaster for us. We played really, really poorly throughout the league, and then we came up against the Dubs again … they destroyed us that day all right.
“But Dublin, around then, were playing the most attractive football which you would love to watch if you were neutral. Because it was attack after attack after attack.
“Whereas now, especially since Donegal in 2014, they have changed their game completely where they’re really cautious, they’re not kicking 50-50 ball into the full-forward line any more. Playing the possession game. Not scoring the same all right.”
The Kerry native sees Sunday as a big step up for his former county, firstly because you can’t ignore that it’s Division 1 versus Division 4.
Harking back to the last two Leinster finals, he adds: “The last two times they did park the bus. Did it do them any good? Probably not. So something has to change this time if they want to have a different performance.
“If you look at their league campaign, they’ve put up a lot of scores. I think they should go for an attacking style, instead of defending ... because it gave them no rewards at all to do that.
“Are they going to beat Dublin? Probably not. But let’s go and give supporters something to shout about here,” he signs off.