Forward wants to recreate ‘the buzz’ of Lake County’s maiden Leinster SFC win under Páidí Ó Sé at Croke Park
It’s been a long 18 years since the Westmeath footballers climbed the steps of the Hogan Stand on that July afternoon to lift their first ever Leinster SFC title - a feeling that the Lake County’s star forward Ronan O’Toole has been aiming to emulate ever since.
Following his side’s elimination from this season’s All-Ireland championship, the Westmeath footballers were placed in the inaugural Tailteann Cup, a competition they have embraced whole-heartedly and can become its first ever winners this Saturday – and in doing so win their first championship trophy at any level since Páidí Ó Sé’s side in 2004.
“It’s probably going to be the most packed Croke Park that we’ve played in. There’s just a great feeling in the county at the minute when you see the bunting up and levels of support around the county. It’s just brilliant and something this county hasn’t seen in almost 20 years,” O’Toole said.
In what is their sixth championship game this year, the midlands county overcame Longford in the opening round of the Leinster championship before losing narrowly to Kildare. However, they have since beat Offaly, Laois, and Carlow in the Tier 2 competition.
“If you look at our recent record, we’ve played Kildare two years on the trot and lost both times, and because of Covid last year, that was our season over so early. Now with the Tailteann cup, we had four extra games added on, which adds maybe a month and a half on to our season,” says O’Toole.
In discussing the public’s cautious attitude on whether the Tailteann Cup would be a success, O’Toole saw it as a chance for his county to prove to themselves they are worthy of playing and competing with the top teams in the country and performing in front of huge crowds in Croke Park.
“It can be easy for teams to reject this competition and not fully take it seriously. But for us, we came back from the Kildare game in the semi-final very disappointed, mainly with our performance in how we played. We felt we left a bit out on the field that day,” he said.
“The main thing was for us was that the entire team bought into the competition. We all wanted to play more games. We knew that we didn’t train this hard for our season to be over so early and with that we just took it game by game and steadily got better.
“I think everyone needs to understand that with the Tailteann Cup there are two prizes on offer; one is the chance to win some silverware and the second is to compete in the Sam Maguire next season.
"We know we have something to prove but you also have to be realistic on where we are at because we didn’t get promoted this year, and we haven’t won a Leinster title since 2004.
"So, if there’s a realistic chance of winning a trophy, you’re going to give your all to win it, because teams in this competition don’t win cups that easily.”
O’Toole – a senior analyst with JP Morgan – also sees further benefits for his side as they prepare to walk out into GAA HQ this Saturday against Cavan, prior to the All-Ireland semi-final between Galway and Derry.
“Apart from winning the competition there are real positives for us being here; we’ve been training more as a team, we’ve been developing players and styles of play,” he said.
"Also, everyone wants to play in a final so the competition for places is the highest I’ve seen since joining the panel. That doesn’t happen if you’re eliminated after the first round and your season is over.
"And finally, the chance to get exposure and play in front of big crowds in Croke Park is amazing and that only benefits the team for next season.”
For GAA fans in Westmeath, the success of 2004 still lives large in memory and is the main catalyst for players like O’Toole to follow and hope that one day he can bring glory days like that back to his native Westmeath.
“When I think of 2004, it’s one of my most vivid memories. I was seven at the time sitting in the box looking down at the like of Dessie Dolan and John Keane. I still remember the buzz that was brought to Westmeath and when you mention ‘04, the first thing that pops into everyone’s mind is winning Leinster,” he said.
“I know it’s the first time that I had a feeling that I wanted to be out there winning silverware for my county. The excitement from that season always returns when you have a realistic chance of winning a trophy and we haven’t had that feeling in a long time, but you can feel it in the air in Westmeath at the moment.
"We’ll need our best performance of the year to take Cavan on. I know they’re red-hot favourites, and rightly so with the success they’ve had in recent years and the All-Stars they’ve produced, but I’m confident we can create history on Saturday. The party will be at my house when we do,” joked O’Toole.