ATHLONE's aspirations in the 2012 Westmeath SFC have suffered a significant blow with the news that county midfielder Paul Bannon will be unavailable for a considerable period.
Bannon, who performed tirelessly in Westmeath's engine-room in the narrow defeat to Kerry last weekend, becomes the latest in an ever-growing list of local players to opt for a summer move to the United States when he departs tomorrow (Thursday).
Bannon is believed to have received an offer to play for an American Gaelic football team over the summer months, similar to fellow Westmeath stars Gary Connaughton and Dessie Dolan, who recently joined the exodus of Irishmen playing in America. Tubberclair's Connaughton has since returned to Irish shores after picking up an unfortunate injury in his first outing in Boston.
Bannon's move is further evidence of the growing number of local players prepared to move to the States for the summer months, as concerns continue to grow as to the impact such transfers are having on the local championships.
The timing of Bannon's departure is far from ideal for Athlone, who face an important outing against Maryland in the third round of fixtures in this year's Westmeath SFC on Saturday (Moate, 7.30pm).
Manager Tom Coffey, who welcomes Mickey Greene back into the fold after he missed their last championship game (a draw against St Loman's), described Bannon's loss as "a big blow", but said he believed in the other members of his panel. "Obviously, losing a player of Paul Bannon's stature is a big blow, but these moves are becoming more frequent. Paul has been a great player for the club over the years and I'm sure will be again in the future. We just have to get on with the job, and the players at the club are good enough to do well," said Coffey, who also confirmed that Gary Quinn is unlikely to feature for Athlone in the near future.
Athlone have started their Division B campaign in positive fashion, comfortably beating The Downs before earning a good draw against St Loman's, when a late John Egan point secured a valuable share of the spoils.
Currently, Athlone and Loman's are joint-second (with three points apiece), while Maryland currently top the group with four points from two games. Mullingar Shamrocks, with two points, also remain firmly in the picture to finish in the top-three and thus secure a place in the knockout phase. Despite impressive wins against St Malachy's and The Downs, Maryland manager Finbar Egan maintains his side are outsiders in the race to finish in the top-three.
"I think people assume we have our three hardest group games remaining, and I'd probably agree," he said.
"Athlone have achieved two good results and Tom Coffey will get the very best out of them. They hammered us in the league, and they were missing several players that day, while we were at full-strength, so it's obviously going to be very difficult for us at the weekend. We're a very young team, with 12 of our starting line-up against The Downs under 23, so we tend to leave the door open to teams a bit longer than a more experienced side would. We're making steady progress and a lot of young lads are experiencing senior football, but I don't think people should get carried away with our two championships wins to date," added Egan.
Maryland have concerns about the hamstring injury aggravated by 20 year-old senior county star Callum McCormack in the warm-up before the Westmeath and Kerry match last Sunday, while Thomas Browne, Ronan Moran and Damien Reynolds also look likely to miss out. County minor star Bryan O'Donohoe is also a major doubt, and his absence would come as a blow to Maryland, whose half-back line (of O'Donohoe, Darren Malynn and Kieran Martin) looked assured against The Downs. On the plus side, David Reynolds is expected to return after an injury-enforced absence. John Reilly should also be okay to play despite nursing a couple of different injuries of late, said Egan.
Also in Division B, St Loman's will be expected to see off St Malachy's (6pm) on Saturday; that game will be followed by the Division B meeting of Mullingar Shamrocks and The Downs (7.30pm).
Castledaly take on Tyrrellspass on Sunday in a Division A clash at Cusack Park (6pm). Derek Heavin's men were beaten by Garrycastle last time out (by three points), and with two points from two games.
Garrycastle, under the stewardship of former Galway star Paul Clancy, face current group leaders Coralstown-Kinnegad at Cusack Park (Sunday, 7.30pm), when a victory would guarantee the Athlone side at least a share of top position in Division A by the end of the weekend fare.
Elsewhere in Division A, Bunbrosna and Killucan, who have both lost their opening two matches, meet at Lakepoint Park on Friday evening (7.30pm), in a match that could have a massive say in the relegation play-off issue come the completion of the group stages.
THIS WEEKEND'S WESTMEATH SFC SCHEDULE
Friday, July 20
Division A: Bunbrosna v Killucan (7.30pm, Lakepoint Park).
Saturday, July 21
Division B: Athlone v Maryland (7.30pm, Moate); St Loman's v St Malachy's (6pm, Cusack Park); Mullingar Shamrocks v The Downs (7.30pm, Cusack Park).
Sunday, July 22
Division A: Castledaly v Tyrrellspass (6pm, Cusack Park); Garrycastle v Coralstown-Kinnegad (7.30pm, Cusack Park).