Saturday 17 March 2018

Westmeath play down suffering at hands of neighbours from hell

Winless record against Meath means nothing to us, insists Cribbin

Westmeath’s Paul Sharry reacts to a missed chance on goal during the League game against Meath in March
Westmeath’s Paul Sharry reacts to a missed chance on goal during the League game against Meath in March
Martin Breheny

Martin Breheny

If Westmeath are to reach the Leinster football final for the first time since 2004 on Sunday, they certainly will not have been steered there by the hand of history.

All they can expect from that source is be given wrong directions, just as it has always done when Westmeath tried to drive through Meath on their summer journeys.

Not once in 22 attempts have Westmeath beaten Meath in the Championship, leaving them one of three counties in the entire country (Kilkenny are excluded because they no longer compete) with zero returns against rivals in their own provinces.

Carlow have never beaten Meath either, while Wicklow have always blanked against Dublin; otherwise, the remaining 27 have recorded wins against all rivals in their own provinces.

It's not an encouraging backdrop for Sunday's game, but Westmeath are refusing to be cowed by history.

"It means nothing to me or to the squad. Many of them will be playing Meath in the Championship for the first time so what happened in the past means nothing," said manager Tom Cribbin.

Draws in 2001 and '03 were the best results achieved by Westmeath against Meath, but both were followed by sizeable defeats in replays.


Of course, Meath were a much stronger force back then, having won All-Ireland titles in 1996 and '99 and reached the 2001 All-Ireland final, where they lost to Galway.

"That's why I'd give Westmeath a good chance of beating Meath now. Meath aren't anything like as good as in 2001, when we came close to beating them twice," said Luke Dempsey, the then Westmeath manager.

"They had All Stars in every line - household names, lads that had done it all. It's not like that now. Meath aren't nearly as strong.

"Tom Cribbin has done a very good job in Westmeath, steadying the ship and getting in some young players, who are playing very well.

"We got a lot of young players into the team around 2000, lads who had won minor and U-21 All-Irelands. We genuinely thought we could beat anyone, Meath included."

Westmeath came very close too against Meath, losing by a point in the 2001 Leinster Championship before drawing with the Royals in the All-Ireland quarter-finals a few months later.

It was a heart-breaking result as Westmeath led by seven points at half-time and by three very near the end before being caught by a late equalising goal by Ollie Murphy.

Meath won the replay, a feat they repeated two years later after another draw in the Leinster Championship.

A case, perhaps, of Westmeath's dismal record against Meath undermining the squad? Dempsey doesn't agree.

"It might have something to do with the experiences themselves, but not the opposition. We should have beaten Meath in the 2001 All-Ireland quarter-final and again in 2003," he said.

"When we didn't, I think it might have deflated the lads. I could sense going to Portlaoise for the replay in 2003 that the mood wasn't quite right.

"It had nothing to do with Meath, just the feeling, I suppose, that a chance had been lost."

Meath manager Mick O'Dowd is unlikely to use past results between the counties as anything other than a minor detail but he will, no doubt, still be hoping that it gives them a psychological edge.

Cribbin insists that dimension is totally irrelevant and that the game will be settled purely on its merits.

Westmeath go into the game with rising confidence, having hit Louth and Wexford for a combined total of 4-35. Granted, Louth and Wexford were both relegated from Division 3 earlier on, but it was still very impressive scoring by Westmeath.

Cribbin, enjoying his first season in charge, is much happier now than during the League, when Westmeath struggled at times, before eventually dropping into Division 3.

He believes that many of their problems were down to balance issues as he worked on figuring out the best positions for various players and the most suitable patterns to apply.

The difficult phase included a 4-10 to 0-11 loss to Meath in Division 2, a defeat for which Cribbin takes much of the responsibility.


"I got a bit frustrated at half-time. We had 18 attacks in the first half, yet were only two points up at half-time. We had made a lot of rushed decisions and given the ball away a lot," he said.

"It left us exposed in the second half, but even then we shouldn't have given away some of the goals. The important thing was to learn from that type of experience, which we did. We have a much better shape now."

He is very pleased with the overall balance in a squad, which has several players in their early 20s, plus some older, wiser heads.

"Young players bring great energy to a panel and that feeds into whole scene. We have some really good youngsters with us now, lads who believe they can do anything. That sort of confidence is great," he said.

Still, they are stepping up in class, even if Meath weren't very impressive against Wicklow in a game where they conceded 3-12, a giveaway which usually results in defeat.

However, they scored 2-19, which suggests that the Westmeath defensive structure is in for a far more demanding test.

"So much depends on how our lads handle the occasion. Meath have been here before but it's new to a lot of our players. But if they settle in well and get their game going, they are capable of anything," said Cribbin.

He is pleased with Westmeath's high scoring returns so far in the Championship but is looking for greater consistency.

"We've played very well in patches but we've got to keep them going for longer," he said.

Irish Independent

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