For the Kerrys, Dublins, and Tyrones of this world success is measured in all-Ireland titles. Provincial honours are little more than a stepping stone to greater things. It is hard to explain to somebody from the counties mentioned above exactly how much winning a first ever senior provincial title meant to the players and people of the Lake County.
July 24 2004 was the day that history was made and Westmeath came in from the cold to leave just two counties (Fermanagh and Wicklow ) still seeking provincial glory. Twice before Westmeath had fallen at the final hurdle in Leinster and that was way back in 1931 and 1949. All of the years of heartache and underachievement were forgiven if not forgotten on that faithful day five years ago.
From a players point of view 2004 was the stuff that dreams are made of. The appointment of high-profile Paidi and the little-known Tomas O’Flatharta as his sidekick created quite a stir. Throw in the ultra-efficient and long time county board secretary Paddy Collins and the well respected, former great, John Cooney into the mix and it was clear that in terms of management at least we had a winning formula.
Now all we needed was a team. Having won minor and under 21 all-Ireland’s in 1995 and 1999 respectively under the guidance of Luke Dempsey it was clear that there was talent in the county. Paidi often mentioned that winning is infectious and there is no doubt that winning those underage all-Irelands played a big part in bringing about the Leinster success in 2004.
They certainly helped us to start thinking more like winners rather than accepting the losing mentality that was often associated with Westmeath teams in the past. For that reason alone Luke Dempsey’s contribution and the contribution of those who worked with him, in particular Michael Lydon in 1999 should not be underestimated.
The valuable experience gained in our extended run in the first year of the qualifier system in 2001 with Dempsey at the helm also stood to us in 2004. Having lost narrowly to Meath in the provincial championship, we took to the road and enjoyed memorable wins over Wexford (replay ), Limerick, Louth, and Mayo before Meath inflicted more heart-ache on us in a replayed all-Ireland quarter-final.
Like many others I was a bit bemused as to why Paidi would accept such a brief. The logistics alone of making the journey from Ventry to Mullingar indicated that only a mad-man would do it and as I now know Paidi is not immune from crossing the line of madness at times, thankfully.
Ballinagore was again our training base for much of the year. This time however a sand track had been installed. Tomas didn’t waste time in laying down his mark. With no football to be seen for the first few months the intensity of training led many of us to believe we had signed up to boot-camp rather than inter-county football. Very few if any of us didn’t spill our guts out at some stage on that damned sand track.
There were nights in the wind and rain and poor lighting that even the prospect of winning a Leinster medal didn’t seem worth the effort that Tomas was expecting from us. And yet most lads stuck to the task unflinchingly.
Paidi was a bit like Lord Lucan for a while in the spring and rumours started that he was in line for an OBE (out before Easter ). Tomas, to his credit kept the ship steady and when Paidi returned to the helm he took the bull by the horns and led from the front.
When he spoke, you listened. It was clear that winning was all that concerned him and he wanted us to taste success.
The championship opener pitted us against Offaly, a team we hadn’t beaten in 55 years. Supporters probably travelled more in hope than expectation but we were confident that with a bit of luck we could turn over our neighbours.
Two incidents in particular stand out from that game. Firstly the sending off of inspirational mid-fielder Rory O’Connell and secondly Brian Morley’s was it/wasn’t it winning point. O’Connell of course had his suspension withdrawn following a High Court appeal, thus allowing him to partake in the rest of our campaign with the exception of the Dublin game. Morley’s point was the luck that we needed.
Dublin were next up, in the Leinster quarter-final. Playing Dublin in Croke Park is every players dream. Beating them in front of ‘The Hill’ is every players dream come true. We needed a big improvement to beat the Blues and thankfully we got it. Trailing 0-9 to 0-6 at the break our never say die attitude really came to the fore in this game.
Dessie put in a man of the match display, but all around the field we had leaders — none more-so than Gary Connaughton between the posts. Ciaran Whelan should have got the line in the second half but didn’t. David Mitchell scored an inspirational point that must have surprised even himself, given that he is more renowned as a full back.
Gary Dolan kicked the equalizing point while yours truly put us a point to the good with time almost up. Paul Conway sealed matters with a late point for a second historic win.
Wexford provided the opposition in the semi-final but with goals from Dessie Dolan (1-7 ) and Shane Colleary we now found ourselves in a Leinster final thanks to a 2-15 to 1-14 win.
Not surprisingly the whole county was on a high. There were more spectators at some training sessions than you’d find at a decent club game. It wasn’t difficult to pack the gear bag for those few weeks. I think Tomas even cracked a joke at one stage.
The buzz and anticipation in the lead up to the final washard to ignore. Yet Paidi and Tomas kept us as out of the limelight as much as possible. Paidi often reminded us that the only day to be reading about yourself in the paper is on a Monday. And he was right. As regards tickets we were told to stay well clear.
Our old foes from minor and u21 days, and the reigning title-holders Laois, stood between us and a chance at cementing our names in history as the first Westmeath team to taste senior provincial glory.
With so much at stake the final was always going to be a tight nervy affair. Paidi had us primed in the dressing room and confidence was high. At half time the sides were locked at 0-6 apiece.
I was introduced in the second half and let fly with my right boot (not a pretty sight ) but miraculously it sailed over the bar to leave it 0-8 apiece. Dessie put us one to the good before Laois levelled. Both sides swopped points but with seven minutes of normal time remaining Denis Glennon put us a point ahead. This appeared as though it was the winner until Chris Conway’s late, late equalizer meant we would have to do it all over again. Final score 0-13 to 0-13.
We were slow to find our shooting boots in the replay but still led 0-7 to 0-5 at the break.Our backs led by John Keane and Damien Healy were outstanding in the second half. The midfield pairing of Shocco and Rory won their patch and kept the supply lines open to the inside line where Dessie (0-3 ) and Alan Mangan (0-4 ) were tormenting the Laois defence.
Laois missed a late goal chance. We had now reached the Promised Land of provincial glory. The whole county went mad. In the dressing room we spoke of the importance of the win but also the importance to go on and make s bold bid for the Sam McGuire.
My biggest disappointment of the whole year was the manner in which we lost to Derry in the all-Ireland quarter-final. Despite the euphoria of our ground-breaking win, that loss left a shallow feeling hanging over most of us.
We didn’t want to be seen to be content just with a Leinster title. We weren’t. Unfortunately that is the way it appears from outside looking in. Derry were there for the taking and we just underperformed which is disappointing and something we just have to live with.
Another disappointment was that there was no proper home-coming reception organized for Athlone, especially as a large percentage of the players were from the south of the county. In terms of promoting the games alone I think that was a missed opportunity.
The highs far outweigh the lows though as far as 2004 is concerned. The homecoming reception in Mullingar, the hospitality shown to us (not for the first time ) by John Corcoran, his family and all in The Greville Arms Hotel, the holiday in Cape Town, Paidi’s famous expressions, the crack on the bus, signing kids jerseys , the dressing-room banter, losing the base of the Cup, finding it again in Tom Farrell’s turf bucket, school visits, Slims food, ice-baths, Ballinagore, ‘Marooned’, Stadium of Light, Croke Park, ‘The Hill’ and of course the sound of the Mick Monaghan’s final whistle on May 23 are just some of the reasons why 2004 is such a special year.
Hopefully we won’t have to wait as long again to enjoy another day in the sun.