Friday 23 March 2018

Westmeath striving to defy logic and history against Dublin

Westmeath believe they can learn from last year's final and pull off one of football's biggest shocks

Jack McCaffrey celebrates after scoring Dublin’s second goal against Westmeath in last year’s Leinster final. Photo: Daire Brennan
Jack McCaffrey celebrates after scoring Dublin’s second goal against Westmeath in last year’s Leinster final. Photo: Daire Brennan

Dermot Crowe

They are getting their excuses in early, and for the lifelong followers of Westmeath who often dreamt of being in a Leinster senior final - today being only their fifth ever - the accompanying fatalism is something they had not bargained on. Stories of punters getting cold feet over parting with a fiver at odds of 25/1 convey the sense of underlying terror or chronic apathy ahead of a historic second successive final appearance.

The monumental imbalance in the distribution of wealth within Leinster is not a new story but the impact on other counties keeps freshly reminding us of the parlous state of the rest of the field. This year's challenger is now a Division 4 team, and even after a praiseworthy job in recovering from relegation to reach this point, there are misgivings about the potential futility of the exercise.

Those unwilling to join that foreboding may advise that Dublin milk their own cows, to borrow a phrase from one of Westmeath's former managers, Páidí Ó Sé, who guided them to a famous win over Dublin in 2004 and the Leinster title. In the last two years in the championship Westmeath have beaten Louth, for only the sixth time in 19 meetings, Wexford, for the sixth time in 15 meetings, Meath, their first ever, Offaly, their eighth from 20, and Kildare, their second from nine.

Considering they have been in freefall through the divisions since losing all seven top flight matches under Paul Bealin three years ago, this has been a noteworthy achievement in itself. Last year they tried to pack their defence to stop Dublin from running riot early in the match and were in a respectable position at half-time, four points down. But two sloppily conceded second-half goals within the space of a minute ended the match conclusively as a contest. Westmeath's six points total looked like something from another era.

Their manager Tom Cribbin has said they will need three goals to have any chance. Westmeath in the last 50 years have scored only two goals against Dublin in the championship. Michael Ennis got one in the 2008 Leinster semi-final when Westmeath were in with a serious chance of winning but fell short. In 1967, when they scored a famous win over Dublin in the Leinster semi-finals, Tommy Dolan got their goal in a 1-6 to 0-8 victory. The only other championship win in 17 meetings with Dublin was back in 1931.

Read more: Cribbin sets Westmeath a scoring target they have never reached before against Dublin

Since the last decade Westmeath have gone backwards as Dublin thundered ahead. Some argue that one or two, at most, of the current side would be nailed-down certainties on the team that narrowly failed to beat Meath in the 2001 championship. Even by the championship-winning year three seasons later some of the more experienced players had started to get past their best. All those players are gone, and only Francis Boyle survives from the team that pushed Dublin to the limit eight years ago.

Westmeath haven't been blazing a trail at underage level like they did at minor in the 1990s. Their last Leinster minor and under 21 titles came as a memorable double in 2000, although they produced good under 21 teams in 2010 and '11. They contested the provincial minor final of 2013, well beaten by Kildare. In the 2010 Leinster under 21 final they lost to Dublin, with John Heslin starring while still 17. In the earlier rounds they beat Kildare, Meath and Laois. The following year's team was capable of going further but after comfortably defeating Laois and Offaly they lost in the semi-finals to Longford by a point. The team convincingly beat Galway, with 12 of the side that would win the under 21 All-Ireland, in a challenge earlier in the year.

Last year's lead-in to the Leinster final had greater positivity after the historic championship win over Meath and the thrilling nature of it. That win was still in the system, even if hopes were remote of shocking Dublin. This year's win over Kildare in a poor match offers none of that energy, with Westmeath making hard work of hanging on to their lead in the final minutes. Injury has hit John Connellan, who missed last year's final, further dampening hopes.

"It is a hard situation for anyone going in against Dublin," admits John Keane, Westmeath's former All-Star defender. "Even around Westmeath there isn't the same excitement this year. The Kildare game, unfairly to a certain extent, was downplayed a lot due to the standard. I think it had a lot to do with the day that was in it and the stadium wasn't full and it is hard to judge a match when there is so little atmosphere."

The departure to the US for the summer of Shane Dempsey and Paddy Holloway and the decision of Paul Greville to withdraw has weakened them, making their feat in reaching the final more noteworthy. Those who blamed Westmeath for being too cautious in last year's final and use the example of Fermanagh as the way to play Dublin carry an awareness of, if not a responsibility for, the possible consequences if the balance isn't right. The greater disappointment last year came when they went out to Fermanagh in the final round of the qualifiers without raising much dust.

Westmeath stuck rigidly to their defensive formation a year ago, even after the two Dublin goals might have induced a little more adventure. Instead the second half produced just two Westmeath points and a long wait for the final whistle to confirm an inevitable outcome.

"The defensive plan was thrown together in a few weeks after beating Meath," says Keane. "This year they should be further along the road. The guys will expect more of themselves. They can't go man for man. But there were times last year - I remember Shane Dempsey was in the full-forward line on his own - when they hadn't enough players pushed up. Being in a Leinster final, I don't think fitness will be an issue.

"I would have huge belief in those lads. A few were coming in when I was finishing. I think they are a great bunch of guys and they are enthusiastic despite relegation and taking some stick and they still managed to put back-to-back Leinster finals together, which no Westmeath team did before. People say it is because Leinster is weak but Leinster was not exceptionally strong when we won it in '04."

Having played in a final a year ago will help them, Keane feels. "We are hoping definitely for a performance. We have some genuinely good footballers and we would love to see them perform on the big stage in Croke Park, like they did last year in the final 20 minutes against Meath."

A crowd of 48,000 attended last year's Leinster final. It probably won't match that this time around, with Westmeath's players striving to do what many, outside of themselves, see as impossible.

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