There’s probably enough of talk of doom and gloom around without me adding to it here. But sure at this stage we wouldn’t know how to cope if we heard a bit of good news anyway, would we? With that in mind I thought I’d share with you something that has been troubling me over the festive period.
In recent weeks I have began to question whether or not there is some intangible link between the fortunes of our county footballers and the national economy- a worrying thought you will agree. Lest you think I’m losing it I’ll explain my reasons for this concern.
Both our economy and our football fortunes showed steady and significant improvement in a similar time frame. The Celtic Tiger generally refers to the economic growth from the mid nineties to early 2008. These were also boom years for Westmeath football. Beginning with the minor all-Ireland success in 95, the u21 crown was added in 1999, with the Leinster senior title in 04 marking the highlight of a very successful period for football in the county. On top of the aforementioned successes, during these years we also collected another provincial minor and u21 title in 2000, three division two titles (01, 03, 08 ), reached three all-Ireland quarter-finals (01, 04, 06 ), and made it to four O’Byrne Cup finals. Rory O’Connell, Dessie, John Keane (2 ), and Gary Connaughton were each awarded all-stars while numerous others were nominated for awards. While there were some disappointments in that period, not least of all against Derry in 04 it was still a remarkable level of success when compared to previous eras.
Most would say that the Celtic tiger was at its peak in 2007, faded dramatically in 08 and is well and truly buried at this stage. It’s also true to say that during the good times the Government took their eye off the ball and failed to plan properly for the future when, like at present, things were not so rosy in the garden. That is why we are not as well equipped as we otherwise might be to deal with the present difficult economic environment.
Now far from suggesting that Westmeaths’ football fortunes for the coming year are doomed before a ball is kicked in anger, I would certainly admit to being concerned about the medium to long-term future of football in the county. My concerns stem from the fact that despite the success at senior level, there is no doubt that we have underachieved at underage level since 2000. Despite having some talented teams in the intervening years, including last years minor side, we have failed to lift any silverware (Athlone Community College’s win in the Leinster Colleges ‘A’ last year was a welcome exception ) and this is bound to have a knock on affect. Success at underage level does not in itself guarantee success at senior level (just look at Galway hurling ) but it’s very difficult to be successful at senior level without enjoying some success at underage level. It’s also vitally important to have players waiting in the wings to take over when needed. Tyrone have realised this some years ago and are reaping the rewards at present.
In my opinion, and perhaps time will prove me wrong, but in recent years we have failed to develop players who can successfully fill the boots of the current crop of players, many of whom are moving towards the autumn of their careers. There can be no denying that as a county we lack strength in depth. This was shown on Sunday last against Meath, and indeed in the corresponding fixture against Dublin last year.
With that said it’s unrealistic and perhaps unfair on the players concerned, to expect a team with so many new faces on board to get a result, particularly against the likes of Meath or Dublin. Tomas O’Flatharta’s hands are tied to some extent at present given the number of players injured or recovering from operations but he won’t have learned a lot from last weeks outing.
One other mistake I think we have been guilty of in recent years is introducing players prematurely to the senior side. It’s a big step u%p from minor to u21, and an even bigger leap from u21 to senior. We have been guilty of bringing players on board who have not yet proved themselves at u21 level, and I for one am not convinced of the merits of this. Indeed one of Westmeaths better performers against Meath, Kieran Martin, is currently studying for his Leaving Cert in Moate Community School, while another of last years minors, Ian Coffey has also been invited onto the senior panel. Both of these are undoubtedly talented footballers and have the potential to offer a lot to the maroon and white jersey in the coming years, but I do question the logic of introducing them so soon, particularly as they already have hectic schedules between colleges football, club football, presumably county u21, not to mention their most important fixture this year, their leaving cert. Will they be suffering the effects of burnout or injury when they should be in their prime in four or five years time?
James Durkan, John Connellan, and David Glennon are just three names who spring to mind when I think of players who in recent years were introduced a few years too soon. All three could still offer a lot to Westmeath in the coming years, and hopefully they will, but at present they are not included in the panel.
In summary, just as the economic good times are over for a few years at least, this coming year apart, I fear that Westmeath football is heading for leaner times. While our problems in Westmeath football circles are not quite as drastic or indeed immediate as those facing the two Brians, we do risk a bleak football future if we don’t get our house in order immediately.
The good news is that we have a great colleges set-up within the county with five schools competing in the Leinster Colleges ‘A’ competition. All five are strong this year so the ingredients should be there for a strong county minor side. An appearance in a provincial decider should be at the lower end of our goals. This could be an important first step towards building for the future. We wish all concerned with promoting football in the county every success in the coming year.
Westmeaths first outing of 09 ended in disappointment as they were comprehensively beaten, by a more established Meath outfit, in Navan on Sunday last. It is only the first week in January so in all honesty it is a bit too early to get over excited about results. Yet it’s never nice to lose to your neighbours, as we know only too well.
Westmeath fielded a very experimental side with only a few who saw championship action last year involved. These included Francis Boyle, Paul and Dermot Bannon, Doran Harte, and Peter Tormey, while Donal O’Donoghoe was introduced. This of course allowed Tomas O’Flatharta to run his eye over many of his new recruits. Of these he will have been most impressed with the performances of Moates’ Alan Claffey operating at corner back and young Kieran Martin at corner forward. Both acquitted themselves well on a day when it is difficult to draw conclusions given the manner in which Westmeath collapsed, having opened brightly. One feature of the Westmeath team not seen too often was the corner forward spots being filled by a teacher and student combination from Moate Community School, Peter Tormey, and Kieran Martin.
Indeed Westmeath found themselves 0-5 to 0-00 to the good after fifteen minutes but remarkably when Paul Bannon slotted over a fine point in the 21st minute it was to prove to be his sides final score of the game. From then on it was all one-way traffic as Meath took full control and Westmeath effectively capitulated.
For their part Meath were much stronger on paper and not surprisingly on the pitch as well. Their full forward line alone of Stephen Bray, Joe Sheridan and Cian Ward showed that they meant business and would be a match for any defence while Mark Ward and Damien Sheridan at midfield and David Bray at wing forward ensured a steady supply of ball to the inside line. Westmeath must now travel to Wexford this Sunday to take on the ‘yellowbellies’ in the O Byrne Shield.
Mixed fortunes for Roscommon footballers and AIT
Roscommon footballers got their ’09 campaign off to a winning start with an easy 3-13 to 0-5 win over Sligo IT last Sunday. They now take on NUIG in Kiltoom, in the second round of the FBD league on Sunday at 2pm.
Meanwhile AIT’s footballers were defeated 2-12 to 0-7 by Longford in the O’Byrne Cup. They now have a home game this Sunday against UCD in the Shield.