Plucky until the bitter end, Westmeath still suffered a Leinster Senior Football Championship final loss to Dublin at Croke Park on Sunday afternoon.
Resilient in the opening period, Westmeath only trailed by 0-8 to 0-4 at the interval, but two goals early in the second half put Dublin firmly in control.
Bernard Brogan and Jack McCaffrey bagged opportunistic goals for Dublin – from then to the finish all that needed to be determined was the margin of victory for Jim Gavin’s side, who claimed a fifth provincial title on the spin. Tom Cribbin was “proud” of the Midlanders’ display, admitting the concession of the goals altered the complexion significantly.
“At half-time I felt we were in with a chance,” was Cribbin’s verdict. “We knew we were going to need goals; that is the way we set up in the second half. We made a few changes to try to keep two big men up front. We thought we might get a goal or two, but unfortunately we conceded two goals instead. We were disappointed with the manner of the goals we conceded- someone coming in the end line like that.
“We had done a lot of homework on that because Dublin seem to get a lot of goals like that coming in along the end line and popping the ball across into the square where someone gets a fist on it. They keep getting goals like that so obviously it is working for them. I know we only got six points, but if we hadn’t conceded the goals I think we would have had the belief to go to get more scores. We were staying to our game plan, but then we gave away two goals so early.”
Westmeath’s preparations were hampered by a heel injury suffered by talisman John Heslin before the Leinster decider. “John Heslin was carrying an injury, Callum (McCormack ) went on and within a minute took a knock which meant he couldn’t run,” Cribbin said afterwards. “I was running out of subs at that stage too. I was very proud of the lads the way they stuck to our game plan in the second half because Dublin can overrun you very easily in a short period of time.”
Compared to the previous victories over Louth, Wexford, and Meath, Cribbin’s team adopted a more defensive approach. “Our game would be an attacking style, but we weren’t going to take Dublin on like that this year,” Cribbin reflected. “The goal was always to get to the Leinster final, to try to beat Meath, to win three championship matches along the way. Then we said we’d deal with the Leinster final when it comes. We felt we could honestly deliver on the others this year and that if we got the game plan and didn’t concede goals to keep them to 12 or 13 scores and if we got a goal or two we might rob it.”
Dublin’s blend of pace and power means teams must use this type of a strategy, Cribbin reckons.
“All the teams playing in Division One haven’t gone back to put this system together. You have no choice against Dublin because they have so much collective pace and power. Even their young players are very composed on the ball. They are very, very quick. They have natural pace everywhere, it is not just fitness or size.
“They have an awful lot of natural pace. You can work the game structure right. I thought our lads did it very well in the first half. We weren’t counter-attacking at the pace I wanted to because of the level of intensity we were putting into our tackling.”
“We could have had another one or two scores in the first half and we didn’t concede goal chances. We had belief in ourselves at half-time that everything was going according to plan. Unfortunately we got rocked in the second half.
“We took Paul out of centre back to give us more power and pace further forward to get it in to John and Kieran a little bit more. We felt we had no choice if we wanted to win the game. We didn’t want to come up to just try to control the scoreline to go home losing by three or four points. We wanted to see if we could stay in it, we had no choice but to take chances at that stage.”
Now Fermanagh are next on the agenda for Westmeath in a round 4 qualifier at Kingspan Breffni Park on Saturday week. Cribbin wants Westmeath to book an All-Ireland quarter final place.
“We have talked inside about it already,” Cribbin acknowledged about the qualifiers. “We don’t want our season defined by this. We have put three great wins together. We need to deliver the next day, to put in a performance. We have no excuses. Dublin, everybody knows, are at the top. Two or three teams are much stronger than the rest at the moment, but between the rest there isn’t a lot of difference. We need to put in a big performance the next day.
“I know what is natural for us. It is better for us to play an attacking style of football which suits us best. That is what we work on. Rome wasn’t built in a day. We have to take small steps to develop the team. Long term we will need a better defensive structure to better the team.”