A glorious opportunity to reach a Leinster final. That’s what both managers must be drumming into their players’ heads ahead of Sunday’s semi-final showdown between Westmeath and Louth in Croke Park. Not that the players themselves will need any reminding.
For either county to reach the final is an achievement. After all Westmeath are bidding to reach only their fourth ever final while the men from the Wee County last reached the decider in 1960.
Both sets of players have every reason to fancy their chances. The bookies have Westmeath as lukewarm favourites at about 8/11, but for me this is very much a fifty/fifty game.
As with any big game there are many questions which will only be answered as play unfolds. Can Louth perform to the same level as they did against Kildare? Are Louth really that good or did Kildare make them look so? How will Westmeath cope at midfield? Can our backs hold Louth’s potent forward line? Will Flanagan start? What about JK or Derek Heavin? Who will wear the No 4 jersey?
On quarter-final form Louth should be favourites going into this game. Their demolition of Kildare was hugely impressive. It will also have given them a lot of confidence.
Yet as Pat Flanagan alluded to in a recent interview, Kildare gave Louth far too much room, something which Westmeath cannot let happen on Sunday. Westmeath defended reasonably well against Wicklow and are capable of stepping it up again on Sunday.
For me the deciding factor in this game will be how Westmeath cope at midfield. Paddy Keenan and Brian White form a formidable partnership. If we can manage to at least break even in the middle third then I’m confident we’ll come out on top.
While the team hasn’t been announced at the time of writing, Paul Bannon is likely to partner David Duffy in midfield. Their role on Sunday is crucial. Both acquitted themselves well against Wicklow and again in recent challenges. My advice to them would be to break everything around midfield and let the half-backs and half-forwards fight for the breaks.
As county mid-fielders go Paul may not be the tallest but he will break ball with the best of them and has a huge work-rate. He can also kick a point as he showed against Wicklow and also kicked three points when introduced against Longford in a recent challenge. For Duffy it’s a perfect opportunity to silence his critics. A performance on Sunday would greatly improve his stock. Both players are well capable of rising to the challenge which lies ahead of them but they must maintain it for 70+ minutes. They can’t afford to drift in and out of the game, which seems to happen at times.
Martin Flanagan has taken no part in training since the Wicklow game due to injury. His absence would leave a big void to be filled. I suspect however that even if he doesn’t start he will be introduced at some stage.
Dessie is almost certain to be starting, having been introduced as a second-half sub against Wicklow. Whether he starts in the half line or nearer goal remains to be seen but it is likely that himself and Denis will interchange. Even though he had a great game in Tullamore, I think Denis was too defensive, and like all Westmeath supporters would prefer to see him nearer goal where he can inflict most damage.
Ger Egan will have to come into the reckoning for a start on the wing after an eye-catching performance against Wicklow. Derek Heavin kicked three points from wing forward against Limerick but I think he’ll be held in reserve. I expect the same can be said for John Keane. Rumour has it that he could start at No 3 and release Donie O’Donoghoe to midfield but I don’t see that happening. I do expect him to see action at some stage though.
Kevin McGuire has been pushing hard for the No 4 spot, having played there in recent challenges. Yet, barring injury I would leave John Gaffey there. I didn’t think he did a whole lot wrong the last day and has more experience than McGuire. With that said the young Caulry man is a good man to be able to call on if needed.
Louth would have been happier if this game was left in Navan as originally fixed. Having it in HQ is another plus for Westmeath.
Whatever the atmosphere will be like at 5.50pm on Sunday after the ‘loyal’ Dublin fans have vacated the premises I think we are in for a ding-dong battle. Leaving recent league form aside, it’s worth remembering that many of the Westmeath players taking the field are proven winners. They have proven themselves before and would surely love to do so again.
Louth look to be overpriced at 11/8 but I think Westmeath’s greater experience will be the crucial difference. The closer we get to the game the better feeling I have about the outcome. I expect Meath to account for the Dubs and hopefully Gary, Denis, Natchy, Dessie, and co will be there to meet them head-on in the final.
A week of mixed emotions for Roscommon football
Connacht SFC semi-final
Roscommon are back in the Connacht final for the first time since 1994 thanks to a five point win over Leitrim. Having trailed by a point at the break, Fergal O Donnell’s men were a different side when play resumed and wasted no time in taking control of proceedings, hitting 1-2 in the opening nine minutes.
A long ball over the top from Karol Mannion to Donie Shine saw the Clann man claim the all-important goal. Shine contributed 1-7 in total, again underlining his accuracy in front of the posts. David Casey put in a man of the match performance from the half-back line.
They will now face either Galway or Sligo in the final. Either way Roscommon will be massive underdogs, which is the perfect way to go into any final.
Feile success for two Westmeath teams
Westmeath underage hurling received a double boost in the past week when both Raharney and Castletown-Geoghegan picked up all-Ireland Feile na nGael titles.
County Feile champions Raharney powered their way to the Division 2 title with a 4-10 to 1-3 demolition of Down representatives Bredagh.
Castletown-Geoghegan claimed the Division 3 trophy thanks to a 5-8 to 1-2 win over Clare side Ruan.
Congrats and well done to all concerned.
Roscommon great Dermot Earley passes away
The jubilation at having reached the provincial final came to a sudden end on Wednesday when news filtered through that former great Dermot Earley had passed away at the age of 62.
A two-time All-Star and rated as one of Roscommon’s all-time football greats, Earley also managed his beloved county as well as Kildare.
As well as winning an U21 All-Ireland in 1966, he played in the 1980 All-Ireland final against Kerry, having captured a national league medal a year earlier. He also won five Connacht titles in a career that spanned 20 years before his retirement in 1985.
His son Dermot Jr also won an all-star award playing for Kildare.
The Michael Glavey’s clubman became ill last year and stood down from his position with the Defence Forces earlier this month on health grounds.
He is survived by his wife and their six children.
Ar dheis Dé go raibh a anam dílis.