Friday 18 October 2019

'Westmeath are full of confidence, they have no fear'

A legendary figure in the GAA in Westmeath, and beyond, Paddy Flanagan feels his county is ready for Dublin

‘In his den, surrounded by walls of Westmeath GAA history, Paddy recalls his many “bitter and sweet” moments
‘In his den, surrounded by walls of Westmeath GAA history, Paddy recalls his many “bitter and sweet” moments

Claire McCormack

It is a very special day for Paddy Flanagan. At 8.50 this morning, he will set off for Croke Park to witness his county's fourth Leinster final in his lifetime.

Armed with his match day programme - which he helped produce - Paddy will pull out from Mullingar bus station brimming with pride and ready to be challenged, just as he did as a Westmeath player between 1949 and 1965.

Sitting in his den, surrounded by walls of Westmeath GAA history, the former defender, county board secretary, Leinster Council delegate and award-winning public relations officer, recalls his many "bitter and sweet" footballing moments over the years.

"It was my life and football still is my life," said Paddy who describes himself as "80 years of age, plus vat".

He continues: "I loved the game, the challenge, being fit and kicking ball. You hear some players now and all they want is an excuse not to play, well all I wanted was an excuse to be on that pitch."

Paddy, a retired psychiatric nurse, first lined out for a Westmeath side in late 1949, shortly after they were beaten by Meath in just their second Leinster final.

"I was always very proud to wear the Westmeath jersey, I took the role very seriously and was 100 per cent committed. Anytime we lost, I dreaded Monday morning and going out meeting people; you knew you'd let them down, but the opposite would happen when you'd win."

Although he says today's football is "completely different" to his days as a player, he still sees the simplicity of the sport - "you get the ball and you kick it".

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For Paddy, the highlight of his career was in 1955 when, after a few barren years, Westmeath beat Wicklow in the first round of the championship. However, his celebrations were quickly dashed by one of his "most painful" memories - a couple of weeks later, the Royals beat them by a point in a Leinster semi-final. He still remembers the heartbreak of it.

"The score was 0-10 to 1-6. It stills haunts me, I'll never forget that one."

Losing to neighbours and old rivals, Meath, was always difficult for Paddy.

"A lot of the times, Meath were better, I have to accept that. But I've a feeling that a lot of Westmeath teams went out to play Meath already beaten before they left the dressing room," he said, adding "they felt they had no right to win".

Which is what makes Westmeath's current squad very special to him.

"In my day, we never could defeat Meath, but two weeks ago, they did it for the first time ever," he said. "You don't know what that meant to Westmeath people and Westmeath football to get this monkey off our backs at long, long last. And it was thoroughly deserved - we gave them a 10-point lead and beat them by four after."

Paddy believes the momentum of that victory has given the players, and supporters, a renewed sense of faith for today's clash.

"Tom Cribben, the manager, has programmed these players to believe that they have every right to beat anybody. Individually and collectively, they are full of confidence and Tom has them chomping at the bit."

However, he acknowledges the reality that Dublin are raging hot favourites.

"Dublin have massive firepower, a massive bench, massive players and all the advantages, but Westmeath won't be afraid of them. We're going to go up and enjoy the match and I know that lads are going to give it their all, that's the sort of them."

Another extra special element to today's outing for the St. Loman's clubman, is his input into the match programme. As PRO of the Westmeath County Board for 30 years, from 1970 to 2000, Paddy changed the face of match programmes in Leinster. Up to 1975, the Leinster championship, even the Leinster final programmes, consisted of just four pages folded over.

Paddy, who was on the Leinster Council at the time, felt compelled to improve the template as they were constantly competing against "pirate" editions.

"People had already bought the pirate, cobbled together in a back-street printer with nothing genuine about them, by the time they got near the official programmes at Croke Park. I wanted to give supporters something interesting to read at half-time".

After pitching the idea to the GAA, he researched each county in Leinster, spoke to local support groups and gathered together titbits of information.

"I would get reels of stuff about previous matches and the families of players with lots of added detail, so people could relate to them," he said. "We used to have a pen picture of each player, a thumbnail sketch and people were always interested in their occupation, age, height, weight."

Of course, he put particular effort into the Westmeath programmes - hundreds of which he has preserved over the years.

His dedication to revolutionising the match souvenir, for football and hurling, earned Paddy six GAA McNamee Awards. And he's still going.

"I had a small input into statistics for today's Leinster final programme, so it will be an extra special one for the collection in my den," said Paddy, who is also working on a GAA series with the Westmeath Topic newspaper. He previously wrote a column with the Westmeath Examiner for 50 years.

But for now, Paddy, who is impressed with the county's commitment to its underage structures and the good results it is producing (his grandsons, Paul and Seán, are aspiring county stars) says the biggest challenge is the constant battle to encourage and nurture young talent.

"We've had some brilliant footballers now and again, but never enough at the one time to have a first-class team. This team are young, with no inhibitions and are ready for everything, including Dublin." Even if they're beaten, "it won't be the end of the world".

"Getting to the Leinster final has done a tremendous amount of good and it's great to see the youngsters going around with the jerseys and the flags, it's a boost for the entire county."

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