Last Sunday’s 27 point defeat at the hands of Dublin marked the end of an era for Westmeath football. Since capturing the u21 title in 1999 and the first of three division two titles in 2000, Westmeath supporters have been treated to many memorable outings.
Expectation levels within the county increased and each year brought a renewed belief that winning a Leinster title could be achieved. Thankfully in 2004 that dream was realised. Since then at the very least we have been competitive, a team that was hard to beat. Realistically though quite a few of the current side have reached the end of the inter-county road and replacing them will be no easy task. The next few years will be about rebuilding a new team to contest, and hopefully win, further Leinster titles, but patience will be required.
Like a lot of Westmeath supporters I had a fear before Sunday’s game that the wheels might come off the wagon. Yet like many others, even though we knew the wheels were loose, I was hoping they might carry us on one more memorable journey. Unfortunately it wasn’t to be and Dublin exposed our weaknesses to the maximum.
Last year the same Westmeath team came very close to beating Dublin and the reigning all-Ireland champions Tyrone. From an outsider’s perspective that’s what makes Sunday’s result so surprising. Yet on closer inspection a lot has changed in the past 12 months.
Confidence and fitness levels were only a pale shadow of what they should be going into Sunday’s game. Losing all seven league games and shipping some heavy beatings along the way inevitably eroded confidence. Struggling to beat Wicklow did little to change that.
The gulf in fitness levels between Dublin and Westmeath was one of the major talking points after the game. While any team that is winning well is always going to look faster and fitter, in this case it was glaringly obvious.
The likes of Martin Flanagan, Damien Healy, Michael Ennis, Fergal Wislon, Donie Donoghoe, and Dessie, the spine of the team, all missed too much training and football through injury to perform to their usual standards. Without them peaking we were always going to be in bother against a team like Dublin. All over the field Westmeath were two or three yards off the pace. To compound matters everything Dublin touched turned to gold.
Tomas Ó Flatharta has done a lot of good work for football in the county. Without him I don’t think we would have won the Dealney Cup in 04. Yet he has to shoulder some of the responsibility for Sunday’s defeat. Why did he opt to play lads who were clearly unfit? Could overall fitness levels (injured players aside ) have been better? What was the point in bringing on Dessie, who is clearly carrying a serious injury, when the team was already 16 or 20 points behind? Surely that was the time to give a chance to someone else on the panel. The likes of Paul Bannon or Anthony Clinton spring to mind. Why did he not play Martin Flanagan at the edge of the square or at least move him there before taking him off?
The county board and the clubs needs to sit up and take notice too. Since 2000 we have not been competitive at minor and u21 level. That is a major cause of concern. While a lot of good work is being done at underage level in the county, more needs to be done if we are to harbour any hopes of being successful in the coming years.
There were two positives to take from Sunday’s game, namely John Connellan and Conor Lynam. The performance of these two in the corners gives hope for the future. Both contributed four points apiece and have bright futures ahead of them. The key will be to find players around midfield who can get a steady supply of ball to these dangermen.
The draw for the qualifiers takes place this Sunday evening. No county will fear playing Westmeath after last Sunday and realistically there aren’t too many sides we would fancy meeting either. While Wexford managed to turn their season around last year after a hammering by Dublin it’s hard to see it happening for Westmeath.
The more experienced core group of players owe the county nothing after a decade of giving everything for the maroon and white jersey. A number of them are likely to hang up the boots at the end of this campaign. For their sake I hope they get a favourable draw and take a scalp or two before the inevitable happens.