A tough hurling year at senior level concluded in an exciting Westmeath win over Kildare in last Saturday’s promotion/relegation play-off at Cusack Park, Mullingar.
Brian Hanley’s team demonstrated admirable character to overcome a tricky start eventually defeating the Lilywhites convincingly. Initially Westmeath encountered plenty of difficulty as two Kildare goals in the first 11 minutes had the Lakecounty men in bother. Bernard Deay and Gerry Keegan rattled the Westmeath net ensuring a seven point gap divided the teams midway through the opening period.
Westmeath, though, responded as Niall O’Brien was accurate from frees and by the time the interval rolled around Derek McNicholas grabbed a goal to edge Hanley's charges 1-13 to 2-7 in front. Inspired by O’Brien after the restart Westmeath emerged deserving 2-22 to 2-13 victors and Hanley paid tribute to the panel’s desire. “It has been a struggle, but it has been a learning curve for the young lads,” Hanley admitted.
“What they have learned from this year will stand to them forever more. It is a credit to them because they’ve had to dig deep. I was involved in a relegation game with my club last year and I was in bits on the sideline so to hurl in that environment is tough. I never like to single out anyone, but we stuck by Thomas Doyle at full-back and is there a better full-back in the country at the moment?
“For Westmeath to be producing players like that and the Grevilles and Niall O’Brien. This county has an abundance of talent if we can just get it right early doors. We had to win the game, it is not where we wanted to be, but we got the result and it will stand to the players’ future which is very bright.”
Athenry native Hanley also spoke about the role a distinguished Clare hurling figure, Pat O’Connor, played for him during tough days in this campaign. “I’ve learned myself,” Hanley said. “I’ve a mentor Pat O’Connor in Clare and on my lowest days he came up to me and told me to believe in what I was doing. He asked me do I believe in the players and I said I do.
“I believe in them firmly and I have done so for three and a quarter years. This county should be in a position to drive on. It has been a struggle and it has been tough. We have got great support and I needed that. Them young lads are in such a better place and we need to switch our focus now to the under 21s.”
McNicholas’ intervention on the stroke of half-time was a game changer according to Hanley. “Derek owed me that, I told him,” Hanley joked. “We had a barbecue the night before the game. I was on my knees. Derek wasn’t with me in my first year, we had a public falling out. To be fair he stood up with the goal and it was some turnaround because we went from being six or seven down to be three up with the score. Also the work rate of so many players made me very hard.
“They are probably browned off with me saying not to panic. I’ve watched and listened to great people that have been involved with teams I’ve played for and the best of them never panicked. Martin Fogarty has been a great help to me from the first time I rang him. We didn’t panic, we didn’t make a change, we stuck with them. I just knew them lads could deliver. There was a 10 point turnaround, but hurling has gone like that now because it’s so fast.”
Next Wednesday’s Leinster u21 hurling championship clash with Dublin at Mullingar will provide the majority of the Westmeath senior squad with another demanding test. “Where we are now is better than anywhere we have finished in the past three years,” is Hanley’s verdict.
We have to drive on and we have to win the game. There is no better job in inter-county hurling at the moment than Westmeath. I have seen what these guys can do. I have seen how they can deliver under pressure.
“I’m thrilled and I’m delighted for the people that stood by me. It was fast hurling. The u21 game against Carlow stood to us. I’m so proud of the lads, they have backed me.
“We have to refocus. If we don’t play better than we did against Kildare we won’t beat Dublin. We have to find another gear, questions will be asked of these players and we have to respond right. I’ve no doubt we can beat Dublin. We have to make sure we do all of the right things.”
Now that Westmeath’s top tier status has been secured for 2015, Hanley hopes the Midlanders can make a serious impact soon. “Westmeath now are where they need to be which is in at least the Leinster round robin. Our target next year will be to win the round robin to play the Galways, Offalys, and Wexfords. That is the level they are at and need to be at. They will get there I have no doubt about it.”