The long wait is over. Championship football is upon us. After a dismal league campaign, Tomas O’Flatharta’s men will be hoping to give their faithful supporters something to cheer about come Sunday evening. O’Connor Park Tullamore, a happy hunting ground for Westmeath over the past decade, is the venue for the Leinster quarter-final clash with Wicklow with a 2pm throw-in.
Wicklow might have been operating out of division four, yet anyone who thinks this will be a walk in the garden, will, I expect be proven wrong. I do expect Westmeath to win, but I have a feeling that we will have to work hard to see off the men from the Garden County.
Wicklow have already tasted championship action, having disposed of Longford in the first round. That will have been a significant confidence booster for them and they are sure to be firing on all cylinders. Micko is a shrewd operator and would love nothing more than getting one over on fellow Kerry man Tomas. Realistically Wicklow are not going to win a provincial title this year, but success for them would be to take a scalp like Westmeath. Have no doubts, Micko will have his charges ready for battle.
Wicklow have a number of quality players who will have to be given special attention. Darraigh O hAnnaidh is a quality centre-back while the mid field pairing of Tommy Walsh and James Stafford form a formidable partnership. Up front team captain Leighton Glynn, Rory Nolan and full forward Seanie Furlong are all capable of asking serious questions off any defence.
In normal circumstances Westmeath folk would be a lot more confident going into this game, but with question marks hanging over a number of our most experienced players, an air of uncertainty prevails. If Dennis has an off day, where will our scores come from? Can we win the vital mid-field battle? There is no doubt that the team is unsettled at present and only on Sunday will we find out what condition we are in.
Dermot Bannon is a definite non-starter having been ruled out for six/eight weeks with a knee injury. Michael Ennis and Dessie are unlikely to start but may see action if needed. Martin Flanagan and Damien Healy are both low on match practice and are also likely to be held in reserve.
The team wasn’t due to be announced until after training Thursday and a number of changes are likely. The defensive unit will be keen to regain its hard earned reputation, which took a serious dent during the league. Gary Connaughton can be counted on to be solid as a rock between the posts. The full back line will probably consist of Frank Boyle, Kieran Gavin and John Keane and should be able to cope with whatever the Wicklow full-forward line has to offer.
The half-backline which in the past was so easy to predict is less clear-cut now. Derek Heavin will man the no.6 berth, with Donie Donoghoe and Willy Murtagh the likely lieutenants on the wings.
David Duffy is sure of his place in the middle of the field, with David O’Shaughnessy likely to make a welcome return to championship action after been plagued by injury over the past two years. Fergal Wilson, John Smith, and Doran Harte are the likely candidates in the half-forward line. Dennis will lead the inside line which could also include John Connellan and Keith Scally. Doran Harte can be expected to drop behind mid-field, a role he carries out to great effect, while Keith Scally is likely to move out towards the half-forward line.
Dennis and Fergal Wilson are the old reliables to provide scores, but Westmeath badly need someone else to step up to the plate with scores, if we are to be serious contenders this year.
Last year Doran Harte, having spent a couple of years knocking on the door, emerged to become a key player for the Lake County. He has continued that good form so far this year. Sunday’s game provides an opportunity for some-one else to make a name for themselves, hopefully somebody in the forward division. My fellow clubman John Connellan and Tyrrellspass’ Keith Scally are both flying in training and could be the ones to make their mark.
Championship is where individuals and teams earn their reputations. There are no hiding places on the wide expanses of O’Connor Park. I don’t expect the large Westmeath following to be treated to a classic but it should at the very least be entertaining.
Westmeath to win by three or four points is my prediction to set up a mouth-watering Leinster semi-final showdown with a less than convincing Dublin. One step at a time though.