A week tomorrow we’re back at Croke Park – for the first time since last September – with Westmeath barring our way to a sixth successive All-Ireland quarter-final appearance. So apart from being Joe Dolan’s birthplace and supposedly one-half (along with Meath) of an ancient fifth Irish province, what’s there to know about the Lake County and their recent footballing record?
What’s striking about Westmeath’s form in the last few years is that there’s been a massive dichotomy between how they’ve fared in the league as opposed to the championship. In the former they’ve tumbled down in successive seasons all the way from Division One to Division Four, while in the latter they’ve reached back-to-back Leinster finals.
Both championship runs have been included big morale-boosting provincial semi-final wins – last year with a first-ever championship victory over Meath, where they came from ten points down to stun the Royals, and this summer with the defeat of Kildare. That win over Kildare was especially noteworthy as both counties were plying their trade in Division Three this spring, with both exiting that Division at the end of the campaign, the Lilies moving up to the second tier while the Lakesiders crashed down to the basement. When the heat came on, though, in the Leinster semi-final it was the Westmeath lads who stood up better and snatched a daring one-point comeback win.
Both last summer and this, their provincial fairytale didn’t have a happy ending. Westmeath did their best on both days to limit the damage Dublin could inflict by adopting an ultra-defensive double sweeper set-up but on both occasions the dam eventually burst and the Lakemen were swept out to sea on the blue tide. Last July it ended up Dublin 2-13 Westmeath 0-6, last Sunday it was 2-19 to 0-10, so a 13-point whipping followed by a 15-point one.
Westmeath’s summer gallop was finally halted last year by Fermanagh. Two weeks after the Leinster final, Tom Cribbin’s injury-hit charges travelled to Breffni Park where a second half surge from the in-form Ernesiders was more than they could handle. They eventually went under by 1-13 to 0-7 in that Round 4A fixture.
A quick scan through their 2016 record confirms that point above about their contrasting fortunes in league and championship. As recently as 2014 they were playing in Division One but this spring saw them operating in Division Three. And not with great effect either.
They opened their campaign with a defeat at Mullingar to Kildare, losing by 2-9 to 0-11 to the team they’d subsequently master in the Leinster semi-final. Another loss followed a week later when Sligo edged by them on a 1-11 to 1-10 scoreline at Markievicz Park. A fortnight after that, though, they picked up their first point of the campaign courtesy of a 0-11 to 1-8 draw at Cusack Park against Tipperary.
Their next outing was also at Cusack Park, though this time the ground in Ennis, where the high-flying Clare lads dished out a heavy beating to them. That early March thumping of 1-18 to 0-10 would surely have set off the alarm bells for the Midlanders, as relegation had now become a real and present danger. A week later, however, those fears were lessened somewhat as they were the ones doing the hammering, working Limerick over down at the Gaelic Grounds by 3-14 to 0-7 to claim their first league win of the year.
A second victory followed in Round 6, with Offaly beaten by 1-9 to 0-9 at Cusack Park but a week later came the fatal blow as they went down narrowly, by 0-13 to 0-11, to Longford at Pearse Park. In a competitive Division where counties were taking points off each other in every round, Westmeath’s haul of five points from the seven games left them two shy of safety and saw them relegated to Division Four along with Limerick.
With their Leinster quarter-final opponents Offaly having finished a creditable third in Division Three and then having unseated Longford in the opening round of the championship, Westmeath clearly had to be on their guard when the sides met at Mullingar in June. In a close-fought encounter, however, it was the home side who shaded it, winning out by 0-13 to 0-12 to seal a date with Kildare. What happened next we’ve already covered.
As I mentioned, 2014 was the last year Westmeath were playing top tier league football and, of course, that’s the last time we came across them in a competitive fixture. On a horrible, wet afternoon in March at Cusack Park that year we came out on top against them by 2-17 to 3-9.
Our one and only championship meeting with them was, of course, that famous qualifier tie back in 2001. That was the first year of the qualifiers and their extra-time one-point Round 4 win over us at Dr Hyde Park – three weeks after we’d carelessly lost a very winnable Connacht final against Roscommon at the same venue – was a big shock, not least given our lofty position then as league champions. Westmeath were the real beneficiaries of the new backdoor system that year, almost toppling Meath at the All-Ireland quarter-final stage before losing out to their neighbours in a replay.
It’s that qualifier defeat to the Lake County fifteen summers back that our lads will now be seeking to avenge when the counties meet at Croke Park tomorrow week. Like then, the prize on offer is a place in the All-Ireland quarter-finals but this time we’re the ones coming into the fixture with a decent run in the qualifiers behind us.