All roads lead to Croke Park this Sunday as Westmeath minor footballers contest the Leinster minor decider for the first time in 13 years. This is their reward for a spirited performance which saw them outclass Meath in Navan last Saturday on a scoreline of 0-11 to 1-6.
Beating Meath in their own backyard was a huge achievement especially considering they were without injured midfielder Theo Watts and had full-back Israel Ilunga red-carded five minutes into the second half. Yet it is unlikely that Tom Carr’s young-guns will be happy just to have reached the provincial final and are sure to at the very least go very close on Sunday against a hotly fancied Kildare outfit.
There has been much discussion about the lack of success at minor level since the turn of the new millennium. Last year’s side for example were well beaten by the same opposition in Cusack Park. In the aftermath of Saturday’s win Carr was quick to point out the difference with this year’s side is the commitment they have given and the fact that they ‘bought’ into his regime. A lot of hard work has been put in since last January both in the gym and on the field and the players are reaping the fruits of that work right now.
There are undoubtedly other players in the county who are talented enough to be on the team but for a variety of reasons chose not to commit. Carr, having learned a lesson last year, decided against chasing anybody this year and so far his decision has been justified.
The pity is that Carr has never been able to get his best 15 players out as injury to key players has been an ever-present issue. Yet credit to the strength of the panel that on each occasion an able deputy has always been found.
Theo Watts did his cruciate in training last week so the hugely talented Rosemount midfielder is ruled out for the rest of the year. Jeremiah Scully who lined out at wing forward for the opening two championship matches is also ruled out with a broken ankle.
Izzy Ilunga was red-carded for allegedly striking an opponent. There is strong evidence that the C/F/C/W player was racially abused by a Meath opponent. However Westmeath are appealing his sending off on the grounds that he didn’t strike his opponent. The appeal was due to take place last night (Thursday ) and confidence is high that he will be cleared to play.
Kildare are warm favourites to collect the silverware trading at 1/4 in the match betting. Midfielder Luke Flynn and full forward Cian McMonagle are two key players for the Lilywhites and interestingly both were teammates of Westmeath captain Ryan Caffrey in St Mary’s Edenderry this year. McMonagle is a proven goal getter and he will need to be kept quiet if Westmeath are to succeed.
Favouritism means very little at minor level and the outcome could well depend on which side adapts best to the wide expanses of Croke Park. The winner plays the runner-up in Connacht while the loser plays the Connacht champions.
I would be a lot more confident about our chances if Theo Watts was available but I still have a gut feeling that Westmeath can upset the odds. Kildare were in the same position going into the u21 decider this year and they blew it while the self-belief evident in this Westmeath side means they will be hard to beat. A win would be a major fillip to football in the county. I wish them well.