FAI Festival of Football magic in Westmeath

Martin O’Neill doesn’t limit his magic to the Republic of Ireland soccer team. With a single smile, a witty joke, or a raised eyebrow he can reduce an entire room of men to admiring, almost gibbering wrecks.

Cathaoirleach Paddy Hill was starry-eyed when he spoke of what a great honour it was for him to shake hands with “the great Martin O’Neill”.

The people of Westmeath had opened their hearts to the FAI, he said, adding that the week’s events at Castlepollard, Mullingar, Athlone, Moate, and more had made the county “a very happy place to be”.

And Martin O’Neill proved he’s susceptible to a little magic himself when he attended the civic reception in honour of the FAI at Westmeath’s County Buildings and declared himself smitten with the beauty of the lake county.

He said he’d had a brilliant couple of days in Westmeath, and the county had proven itself “a real eye-opener”.

It was his first time in Athlone and Mullingar, he said, adding that “I must admit, I didn’t realise Westmeath was as beautiful as it is”.

He was taken aback by a morning spent watching young people play soccer at an Athlone soccer summer camp.

“I appreciate the coaches and the work they did and the kids were really well behaved and enjoyed it immensely.

“You’d think we were bound to get a couple of players to come through,” he said, offering more hope for Westmeath soccer prospects than he did for Westmeath’s footballing skills.

In a witty off-the-cuff speech, he also spoke warmly of outgoing FAI president Paddy McCaul, saying he was sad to see his term come to a close.

“Times have been difficult for Athlone Town recently,” he said, but added they are a team that is coming along.

Speaking to the media afterwards he said he was amazed by the enthusiasm of young people, and pleasantly surprised by the quality of the soccer facilities in Westmeath.

Provincial clubs can produce top-class players, he said.

“In every little township you would feel that there is just a gem of a player waiting there, and with the number of kids actually playing!”

“I know this is summertime and I know there is a gathering of players that sometimes maybe during the course of your school terms you wouldn’t get.

“But even so you would think that somewhere along the way there would be one or two young lads here happen,” he said.

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