Leaving Wexford Park after the debacle which condemned Westmeath to the qualifiers it was hard to be optimistic of our chances regardless of whom we would be pitted against in the qualifiers. The consensus was that no other county would mind playing us.
Two weeks have passed and while much giving out and scratching of heads has taken place the initial doom and gloom and air of pessimism has given way to a feeling of hopefulness rather than confidence that Pat Flanagan’s men can gain a certain amount of redemption with an away win on Saturday.
Antrim in Casement Park is far from an easy draw but with the likes of Down, Monaghan, and Laois in the hat we could have fared a lot worse.
In many ways there are a lot of similarities between this weekend’s game and the Leinster championship outing. Both involve a long journey into the lion’s den. As was the case in Wexford Antrim’s footballers will have the benefit of a large home support due to the fact that their hurlers are in action immediately afterwards. Given the timing and distance involved it is likely that only the small core of die-hard Lake County supporters will make the journey north.
At this level, and especially given the humiliating nature of the defeat in Wexford there is no room for excuses. The players simply must deliver.
A number of people I have met this week hold the view that the result doesn’t matter because they are not going to progress very far through the back door. While I agree with the latter sentiment I firmly believe that the result does matter.
We are clearly a team in transition and quite a few players are learning the ropes of senior county football. It is important for them, as a reward for their efforts all year and their confidence going forward, that they taste championship success this year regardless of the opposition.
A lot of work has been done in the past two weeks to address the problems which were so ruthlessly exposed by Lyng, Brosnan and co. A win over Longford in a challenge last week will have lifted confidence somewhat as well as giving Pat Flanagan and his selectors a chance to look again at his options.
While the team has not been announced at the time of going to press there are bound to be changes in personnel and positioning this weekend. David Duffy is in with a chance of making a return to midfield. I would play John Heslin in midfield but he could feature on the 40. Doran Harte is likely to revert to his previous role as a defensive wing forward.
While Dessie’s hamstring is an ongoing worry I expect he will start. If we are to have any chance we need a repeat performance from himself and Denis. We also need the rest of the forward unit to shoulder more responsibility in the scoring stakes.
We were taken to the cleaners in midfield and defence a fortnight ago. While Paddy Cunningham, Kevin Niblock, and Kevin Brady are decent footballers they will not pose the same threat as Wexford’s forward unit.
Westmeath shot 15 points two weeks ago whereas Baker Bradley’s men only managed seven points in their defeat to Donegal. Antrim’s last outing was six weeks ago and that might also be a negative for them. Rumour has it that a number of their players have headed Stateside but that remains to be seen.
I expect to see a much improved Westmeath performance all round, particularly in defence. The standard of defending in Wexford was bordering on comical and unless we tighten up at the back we will struggle against Antrim.
I am hopeful we can make the long trip north a winning one but I don’t expect it will be a classic.