Tom Cribbin’s Westmeath face a defining fixture against Kildare in Sunday’s Leinster SFC semi-final clash against Kildare at Croke Park, 2pm throw-in.
The match offers Westmeath a significant chance to advance to a second provincial decider in a row as Cribbin’s team are looking to build on an encouraging quarter-final triumph over Offaly.
Now a difficult assignment awaits against Kildare, who earned promotion from Division Three of the Allianz Football League. Kildare have embarked on two recent trips to the Jones Road venue losing to Clare in the Allianz Football League Division Three final, but the Lilywhites were able to dig out a Leinster quarter-final success defeating Wexford in a tight contest.
Experienced Kildare defender, Ciaran Fitzpatrick, says the Lilywhites have identified John Heslin as one of Westmeath’s chief threats: “John Heslin is an unbelievable footballer,” Fitzpatrick admits. “You could see it last year in the win over Meath, he was a real leader for them and he stood up but we feel that percentage-wise, your high percentage shots and scores are going to be coming from inside and in and around the D.
“So [it would be best] if you can stop people scoring from those areas and push them into shooting from out further. That year Donegal beat Dublin, Dublin hit five or six points in the first half from out far and then they weren’t hitting them in the second half. You want to push them towards the low percentage shots. We know John Heslin is an unbelievable footballer, but we’ll have plans to nullify him. Lads know him. It’s not like he’s an unknown commodity.
“The lads know him well, a few of the UCD lads - Tommy Moolick, David Hyland, and Niall Kelly. Hyland marked him and did an unbelievable job in the league. We’ll want to cut down on the frees; he’s one of the best freetakers in the country, so that’s another thing we’ll be working on. We know what he brings and hopefully we’ll be able to nullify him.”
An ankle injury forced Fitzpatrick out of the Wexford win, but he was impressed with aspects of the display. “We’ve changed the way we’re going play. It obviously takes a long time to get these adjustments. As a group we were very disappointed with the performance. We know that kind of performance isn’t going to be good enough against Westmeath, who are on a high after the last game, or later on in the summer.
"But we got the win. That kind of game, maybe the last few years, you mightn’t have eked out the win. It gave us a platform to build on, to restrict a team to eight or nine points in a championship game is nothing to be sniffed at, so we just need to get the transition game working.
“We know that a lot of teams are playing this system and you have to be able to play different sort of systems. If the game calls for it, we need to play attacking football, but then another game plan we need to know is playing defensive, being able to sit back and hit teams on the break and work that side of it instead.”
Kildare have suffered a string of injuries ahead of the Westmeath clash, and last week O’Neill confirmed that Kevin Feely (shoulder ), Paul Cribbin (knee ), and Daniel Flynn (hamstring ) will all miss out.