Westmeath minor manager Tom Carr.
WESTMEATH minor football manager Tom Carr has this week described his charges' progress this year as "slow but steady", as the Lake County prepare for a very testing Leinster semi-final against neighbours Meath at Cusack Park, Mullingar on Saturday (7pm).
Earlier in the year, the signs were ominous as the minors showed disappointing form in the Leinster Minor League, losing comprehensively to both Dublin and Offaly. Matters didn't get any better when they suffered defeat to Louth in the opening round of the Leinster championship, when Westmeath actually failed to register a single score during a poor second half display.
At that point, it looked bleak for this group of players, but they've since manoeuvred a way through the Leinster back-door system, beating Carlow (after extra-time) in Round 2 of the Losers' Section (to qualify for the quarter-finals).
A battling victory over Wicklow in the quarter-final at Aughrim (0-10 to 0-7) followed, as a strong wind proved unconducive to a high-scoring game. Ultimately, Westmeath showed commendable spirit against the Garden County, though they struggled to achieve fluency in their play for long spells.
Westmeath were backed by the wind in the first half and led by 0-6 to 0-2 at half-time. Wicklow managed to cut the deficit to the minimum with four minutes remaining (0-8 to 0-7), but Westmeath held on for a deserved victory, thus setting up a semi-final against a fancied Meath outfit.
The Royals were impressive winners over Offaly in their quarter-final played in Tullamore.
Westmeath expect to be without Tubberclair defender Eamonn Quigley, who has been struggling with a knee injury of late, but otherwise Tom Carr expects to have a full-fit panel.
However, the former Dublin player knows Westmeath are in for a searching examination.
"Meath will be very tough, we're fully aware of that, but any game you get in the Leinster semi-finals is going to be hard. We're among the last ten or 12 teams in the country now, and it naturally gets harder at this point. We've watched Meath a few times this year, and they're a strong and physical outfit.
"I know Meath see this as a fantastic opportunity to reach a Leinster final, and possibly go on further, and they're focused and driven by that. I think if you look back to the start of the year, when we took a few whippings, we most certainly would have been happy to take a Leinster semi-final place.
"Admittedly, our progress has been slow this year, but it's also been steady, and I think the lads see this as a great opportunity to show what they can do. I know there's more to come from these players, so hopefully we'll see that come to the surface on Saturday," said Carr.
Westmeath are bidding for their first appearance in a Leinster minor final since 2000, when Ambrose McGowan's charges defeated Dublin in the final.
Current minor manager Carr is also calling on the spirit of 1995, when Luke Dempsey guided Westmeath to Leinster and All-Ireland glory, to lift his players to success this weekend.
"I realise that Westmeath supporters are finding it difficult to get excited or motivated by what's happening in the county at the moment, and that expectations are very low, but wouldn't it be fantastic if these young lads could get a good level of support on home turf, and get a result against Meath. You only have to look back at when Luke brought the minor title to Westmeath in 1995, to see that success can occur when you think everything's going against you and the county. Let's hope the minors can kick-start something this weekend," he said.
Though Eamonn Quigley looks like missing out through injury, there remains a hugely healthy representation from clubs in the south of the county through the likes of Justin Barrett (Garrycastle), Ray Connellan (Athlone), Aaron Curley (Tubberclair), Lorcan Dolan (Castledaly), Rob Gorman (Moate All-Whites), Andrew McCormack (Rosemount), Bryan O'Donohoe (Maryland), Theo Watts (Rosemount) and John Corbally (Moate All-Whites).
Other potentially valuable contributors this weekend include Coralstown-Kinnegad's Ger Leech and Killian Daly of Mullingar Shamrocks.
The other Leinster semi-final involves Dublin and Kildare and will be played next Wednesday (Newbridge, 7.30pm).