Westmeath produced a brilliant second-half burst to secure a place in a second successive Leinster SFC final when defeating Kildare, 1-12 to 1-11, at Croke Park last Sunday.
That the provincial semi-final clash with the Lilywhites was a surprisingly tepid match did not matter in the slightest to Tom Cribbin’s team, who seized the initiative with a devastating 1-6 without reply.
Trailing by six points following a 42nd-minute Eoghan O’Flaherty goal, Westmeath came thundering back as Paul Sharry and Ray Connellan (2 ) landed important points. In the 48th minute James Dolan ventured forward to pinch a crucial score, and further points from John Heslin, Kieran Martin, and impressive substitute Callum McCormack edged Westmeath three clear.
Kildare summoned one late rally but could only muster two points from Neil Flynn, ensuring Westmeath will now face All-Ireland champions Dublin at GAA headquarters on July 17.
At the interval, Westmeath were 0-7 to 0-6 behind, but Cribbin admitted that the Midlanders did not get going properly until after Kildare’s goal: “I suppose we probably were a bit too defensive,” he said. “We didn’t attack the game as we should have in the first half. We didn’t do it until they went six points up. But then Jimmy Dolan, Kieran Martin, and Paul Sharry started stepping up and running at them and going at them. And I think that was the difference.
“We were a bit scared to go four on four at one end and leave it eight on eight at the other. It’s impossible to mark space and they have quality forwards who can hurt you, so we had no choice but to leave one back. I thought we would do more damage up front.”
Despite suffering a third relegation in a row, Westmeath have enjoyed two encouraging Leinster Championship campaigns. Cribbin, who continues to earn admirers for his honest and wholehearted approach, took responsibility for the relegation: “That was my fault,” he said about the drop to Division Four of the Allianz Football League.
“There were certain things we got wrong - 12 players didn’t finish until the end of November and I told them to stay off until after Christmas to get little niggles right. And then we probably brought them back too early in the O’Byrne Cup. Then a lot of these lads carried injuries through the league.
“Paul Sharry had to go off for an operation and he came back in time for the last few games, but we took the chance. We thought we’d stay up without him, but it was a call we made to make sure we had him for the championship.”
Returning to the provincial showpiece is a significant achievement with a fairly youthful panel: “You have to be realistic, especially with the panel we have - there’s a lot of young lads brought in this year. It’s going to be a huge task, but getting to the Leinster final is the start of it. You have to get there to see what we learned from last year. That was our goal.”
Kildare boss Cian O’Neill accepted that the Lilywhites’ failure to score for 28 minutes in the second half was costly: “Yeah, that was probably the most disappointing aspect of the game,” he said. “It was nip and tuck for long periods, a point this way, a point the other, two points up, two points down. When you wrestle that kind of momentum away from an opponent you really need to go for the jugular and be clinical and ruthless. We were neither, in that frantic six to 10 minute period.
“Every team has a purple patch and your role as the opponent is to try and limit what they can do in that period. We just didn’t contain them. Once they got back level, the momentum was with them and they pushed on like any good team would do, coming from six points down. In fairness to the guys, they showed tremendous resilience and character towards the end to get within one and had chances to equalise, but at that stage it was too little too late and we just weren’t able to get one back to grab the draw.”