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Smyth lives double life for Westmeath cause

Yesterday once again saw Brian Smyth undertake the well trodden journey from south-east London to Raharney, Co Westmeath, only this time there wasn't an RTE camera crew to record his every move.

The Lake County hurling captain's weekly pilgrimage from St Paul's Academy, where he teaches maths and PE, is set to feature in a new RTE series called 'The Journey.'

The programme highlights the extraordinary distances some people must travel for work in these recessionary times, or in Smyth's case, to pursue his sporting passion.

Westmeath's Leinster SHC quarter-final win over Carlow last month was the game featured and Smyth couldn't have written the script any better as he turned in a man-of-the-match performance for the cameras, which included popping up with a late goal.

"It was good fun and I was delighted to be picked -- I'm enjoying it all," said Smyth, who by his own admission has been leading something of a double life for the past three months. Not quite one of super hero proportions, but not far short.

Every Friday, he religiously jumps aboard the Docklands Light Railway to London City Airport where he catches a flight to Dublin. A lift is waiting for him upon his arrival to take him to the family home in Raharney.

But there's barely enough time for a quick hello to the folks before Smyth grabs his gear and is off out the door to meet up with his Westmeath team-mates for training.

"That's my Friday night! It's like I'm living a dual life. One is working during the week, and the weekend is sport, sport, sport," he said.

If the game is on Saturday, or an early throw-in the following day, Smyth can expect to be back 'home' in Shooters Hill, London, by 9.30 on Sunday night.

If it's a late start on Sunday then it's a 4.0 alarm call on Monday morning to catch the first flight out of Dublin to be back at St Paul's for the first lesson of the day. It's an exhausting schedule.

However, while it's a journey that tests Smyth's dedication to the limit, it's also one that's reliant on no shortage of understanding on the part of his school. There Smyth is fortunate, as St Paul's Academy Principal Patrick Winston has more than a keen interest in GAA.

"He has been so supportive of me. I don't think it would be possible for me to be going home early on the Friday if it wasn't for Mr Winston -- he's a great love for the sport," said Smyth.

"When I arrive back on a Monday morning everyone wants to know how I got on. It's great working in such a positive and supportive environment.

"We have a great leader in Mr Winston and everyone just rolls in behind him. There's never a problem with me getting off a bit early of a Friday to catch a flight."

The series is not due to air until November, so Smyth will have to wait for his moment of TV stardom. Which is perhaps just as well as in the meantime the Lake County captain has more pressing concerns, namely helping Westmeath negotiate Antrim at Casement Park today in the preliminary round of the All-Ireland qualifiers.

After a winless league campaign ended in relegation to Division 3A and prompted a change of manager, with Brian Hanley replacing Kevin Martin, Westmeath upset the odds against Carlow in Leinster before giving Galway a run for their money.

"We had them (Galway) by the pin of the collar with 15 minutes to go. They had to empty their subs' bench. They had most of their top players on view, but they had to bring on Joe Canning to save the day," said Smyth.

"I was looking up at the clock with 15 minutes to go -- it was a drawn match. I said: 'We could pull off the shock of the century,' but unfortunately it wasn't to be. But it was still a very good performance and there were lots of positives.

"We hit rock bottom in the league, but there were a number of reasons for it. We hadn't a full panel at any stage through it and lost players through suspension. I got suspended myself, sent-off against Antrim.

"He's (Brian Hanley) very passionate about the game and that's what you have at the top. Brian is an inspirational man and the guys are working really hard for him."

Antrim inflicted one of those seven league defeats and today is the chance for Smyth and Co to measure just how far they've come since the two sides met in March, when the Saffrons came out on top by four points in Mullingar.

"Antrim is a very tough test -- they're a top side. They caused a huge upset when they beat Laois -- they racked up a serious score," he said.

As usual, most of Smyth's preparation for today will have been done by himself, making the most of the excellent sports facilities St Paul's has to offer. From honing his skills on the 3G pitch or either of the two full-sized pitches, to speed work on the running track or putting in the hours in the school's state of the art fitness suite.

"I'm blessed with the facilities that are available to me at St Paul's. Everything I need for my training is within the grounds -- it's fantastic," said Smyth.

In addition, once a week former London county team selector Martin McGrath, who promotes GAA in local primary schools in partnership with St Paul's, puts Smyth through his paces. And, weather permitting, he'll even cycle the three and a half miles to and from school every day from his home in Shooters Hill.


"It is hard to remain driven, but I know the guys at home are honest and they're committed, and they're going to be training hard. If I want to keep up with the pace I've got to push myself," said Smyth, who won a Christy Ring with Westmeath in 2005 and was made county captain at the start of the year.

He said: "I think it was to keep me going (to training)!" His first game as captain was against Antrim in the Walsh Cup in Mullingar in mid-January, which the Saffrons won by four points.

More likely is that Smyth's leadership qualities had simply been noted by those that matter -- qualities strengthened after coming through a personally difficult 2010. His debut for London's footballers against Leitrim in the National League turned sour when he, along with County Board chairman Tommy Harrell and secretary John Molloy, were hit with a proposed 48-week suspension on the grounds that Smyth had played before his transfer had been rubber-stamped by Croke Park.

His football club Killucan raised an objection, but that was not passed on to London officials, hence, Smyth was unwittingly played in Carrick-on-Shannon. London and Smyth were later vindicated when all suspensions were dropped.

Smyth returned to play for London in the Connacht SFC quarter-final defeat to Roscommon and against Wexford in round 1 of the qualifiers.

"It was a terrible year for me because I didn't get to do what I love, and that's kick ball and play hurling," Smyth recalled.

"I didn't get to play enough games because of the transfer saga and suspensions. It was a disappointing year and one I'd like to forget about."

Although he therefore missed out on Westmeath's Christy Ring Cup success, his year was salvaged by helping Raharney to an 11th county title.

His experience with London's footballers, though, hasn't put him off maybe once again turning out for the Exiles, particularly with Smyth set to start a Masters next year.

It's also not lost on him that this year he could have been part of the county's recent Nicky Rackard Cup success or the footballers' heroic effort against Mayo.

"I wouldn't mind doing it again. I'm certainly very content at St Paul's, so I don't know if I'm going to give this level of commitment next year," he said.

"I do want to give it, but I don't know if I'll be able. There's nothing to say that I won't play for London in the future.

"When the year is over I'll sit down and take some time out and I'll make my decision. I certainly won't rush it. It's a big decision.

"There's nothing better than playing for the county you're from, and that's what I wanted to do when I was growing up. I've serious love for the sport -- it's my life really.

"I'll be playing football and hurling next year, whether it be in London or Westmeath I've yet to make up my mind."

Who knows, come 2012 Smyth could well be lining up for London against his Westmeath County team-mates in Division 3A. Watch this space would seem to be the message, but first things first for Smyth, starting with Antrim at Casement Park today.

Irish Independent