We’re on the road again. The cloud which hung over Westmeath football for much of the past two years well and truly lifted in glorious sunshine in the magnificent O’Connor Park last Sunday.
A spirited display from Pat Flanagan’s men saw them emerge with one point to spare for the second year running against Micko’s men and propel us to a Leinster semi-final meeting with Louth.
The doom and gloom was blown away by a group of players determined to make a statement. Anyone who doubted their ability got their answer in fine style on Sunday. Superb defending throughout, combative midfield play, and 14 points from play over the 70-plus minutes meant that anything other than a Westmeath win would have been an injustice.
It may have taken a late Denis Glennon point to seal matters after a Paul Earls injury time goal brought the sides level but in truth Westmeath were five or six points a better team. Wicklow will rue a number of missed chances, including hitting the post and crossbar, not to mention a number of stunning saves from, in my opinion, the best goalkeeper in Ireland, Gary Connaughton.
Yet for the most part Westmeath looked to be well in control. Although leading by just one point at the break the Lake County men held a five point advantage with a little over ten minutes remaining.
Two sending off’s (John Gaffey and David Duffy ) for second yellow cards certainly didn’t help the Westmeath cause leaving it 14 against 13 following the dismissal of Leighton Glynn. The men in maroon and white were out on their feet for the last few minutes having expended ever joule of energy in the preceding 70 minutes.
Wicklow deserve credit for their never-say-die spirit and the goal they were pressing for eventually came in injury time. Extra time looked to be on the cards but Tyrrellspass duo Ger Egan and Denis Glennon combined to bring the sizeable (albeit outnumbered ) Westmeath following to their feet when Glennon split the posts to send us on our way.
The prize is a mouth-watering clash against an upwardly mobile Louth outfit in Croke Park on Sunday June 27 with a 5.50pm throw-in. This will be preceded by the second semi-final between Meath/Laois and Dublin at 4pm and the Leinster JFC final at 2.15pm. The two senior games will be shown live on telly with TV 3 showing the first game and RTE showing the Wesmeath v Louth tie.
Gary Connaughton was at his brilliant best between the posts. The full back line of Boyle, O’Donoghoe, and Gaffey laid down a marker early on and were tenacious throughout. Gaffey can be well pleased with his championship debut and was unlucky to receive two yellow cards from a finicky referee.
Another debutant who made his mark was centre back Kieran Martin who answered any doubts about his ability to man the key position. An ankle injury forced him off midway through the second half and his replacement Tommy Warburton proved to be an able deputy.
Michael Ennis played a captain’s part providing leadership from start to finish. His trademark point and inspirational block were just two highlights of a typically honest display. Doran Harte on the other wing was like a hoover mopping up an amount of ball and driving forward at every opportunity.
The midfield pairing of Duffy and Bannon answered their critics also. Duffy won the opening throw-in and made a number of eye-catching fetches early on. Both worked hard throughout. Bannon kicked a wonderful point from distance and made one vital block which broke up a Wicklow attack when they were beginning to build a head of steam.
Ten years on from the time he scored ‘that’ goal against Laois at the same venue, Martin Flanagan showed there is life in the ol’ dog yet with a five star performance. His influence could have been greater had Westmeath been more direct at times.
John Smyth worked hard as always before making way for Dessie in the second half. Alan Gaughan found the going tough on his debut but will learn from the experience and has plenty to offer to the maroon and white cause in the future.
Denis Glennon played a significant part in swinging this tie in Westmeath’s favour. Apart from his winning score he worked hard throughout, playing a much deeper role than usual. While he did this to good effect at times, there were certainly times he was needed closer to goal. Thankfully when it was needed most he was in the right place at the right time.
Ger Egan had a great game on the wing when introduced before the break. The introduction of Dessie gave everyone a lift and he managed to chip in with a point also.
Yet it was the performances of younger guns Conor Lynam and Paul Greville that was on the lips of many as they exited O’Connor Park. Either of them were entitled to the man-of-the match award. Both weighed in with three points each from play and were lively throughout.
Louth were surprise though well deserving winners against Kildare in their quarter final. Pat Flanagan and his men will be under no illusion as to the task that lies ahead. It will take a mammoth effort to get the better of Louth. Yet with a certain amount of pressure now gone, and confidence levels raised, it presents a glorious opportunity to reach a Leinster final.