This Sunday Westmeath have their first outing in what will undoubtedly be a testing league campaign, when they welcome Galway to Cusack Park.
Operating in the ultra competitive world of division one, survival in the top flight will be the name of the game for O’Flathartas men. Having impressively collected the silverware in division two last year, this year’s league opposition are a significant step up in class. Added to that, Westmeath will begin their campaign with a number of regular players absent through injury, which won’t make things any easier.
With that said, I for one was far from optimistic at this stage last year, after the trouncing by Dublin in the O’Byrne Cup .
Yet I had to eat humble pie after the team went on to, not alone win division two, but also came very close to beating both the provincial champions Dublin and the All-Ireland champions Tyrone, in championship. It’s not surprising then that I am wary about dismissing Westmeath chances this time around.
The Lakelanders campaign is as follows: Galway (home ), Derry (Sunday February 15, away ), Mayo (Sunday March 8, away ), Tyrone (March 15, home ), Kerry (March 22, away ), Donegal (March 29, home ), and Dublin (April 12, away ).
Four away games is an added difficulty which the maroon and whites will have to negotiate. That adds extra importance to this weekend’s home game against the Tribesmen. O’Flatharta and his men will be well aware of the importance of collecting two points in the opening game.
Galway of course were crowned FBD League champions last weekend, having being brought to extra time by Roscommon. Indeed this extra competitive action will give Galway an added edge over the home side. Westmeath’s experimenting in the O’Byrne cup and shield had to be done, but means that even the more seasoned players who are likely to return to action on Sunday, are likely to be ring-rusty.
While Fergal Wilson, Alan Mangan, and Martin Flanagan are all ruled out for the coming weeks, a number of our more experienced players are likely to return to action on Sunday. Amongst these are John Keane, Michael Ennis, David Duffy, Dessie Dolan, and John Smith.
Damien Healy is the only one of last year’s highly impressive defensive unit who is definitely unavailable. This means that Michael Meehan, Padraig Joyce and co will have to work hard to earn their scores on Sunday.
In the absence of Martin Flanagan, midfield could be more of a problem to solve. Flanagan was central to Westmeath league success last season and his absence leaves a considerable void to be filled. Donie O’Donoghoe is sure to fill one berth, with Paul Bannon, David Duffy, and Aidan Browne in contention for the second midfield spot. Bannon could also be used at wing forward in the absence of Fergal Wilson, in a line that should also include John Smith and Doran Harte.
Dessie and Dennis Glennon will once again be expected to spearhead the attack and turn possession into scores. Dermot Bannon who is recovering from a hamstring strain is another possible starter. Thomas McDaniels, who has belied his tender years in the O’Byrne Cup and Shield could also see action at some stage on Sunday.
While Westmeath are well capable of getting their campaign off to a winning start, they will need to hit the ground running against Liam Sammon’s side, who will be without the Corofin contingent. Sunday’s game, even though it’s the first of a seven match campaign, will be a good indicator as to whether or not we will be playing division one football in 2010.