Gerry Buckley looks forward to Westmeath's trip to Celtic Park to face Derry in the Allianz Football League this Sunday.
Last year, a prominent former inter-county player who faced Westmeath in crucial games in his career (and had a poor record in these games!) tweeted as follows: “Five games gone in the 2013 National Football League and two things are certain – Down will be relegated from Division One this season, and Westmeath will be relegated from it next year.”
A cruel taunt? Yes, but on the evidence of the Lake County’s two gutsy, but ultimately pointless, clashes with Cork and Dublin earlier this month, the soothsayer-cum-pundit looks like he could be spot on.
Media-charming Chelsea supremo, Jose Mourinho recently talked (surely tongue-in-cheek?) of the Stamford Bridge outfit being the “little horse” in the race for Premier League honours. Westmeath is unquestionably the 'little horse’ in the top flight of the 2014 league. Odds of 1/7 to be relegated were on offer from seldom-wrong bookmakers before we headed to Páirc Uí Rinn on February 2. I assume we are now virtually unbackable to make a quick return to Division One.
With currently-pointless Mayo and Kerry needing points when they visit Cusack Park on March 9 and 30 respectively, those already-daunting assignments have an Everest look about them. However, a trip to Celtic Park next Sunday (throw-in 2.30pm) is surely one that Paul Bealin and his backroom team - and, more importantly, the hard-working players - will see as a realistic opportunity to get some points on the board.
Yes, Derry have started their campaign extremely well. Their draw with Tyrone and win against Kerry are excellent results by any standards. However, Westmeath's recent record against Derry suggests there is not a lot between the Oak Leaf and Lake County sides.
Conveniently ignoring a very understrength already-promoted visiting team’s hammering by a points-seeking home outfit in the last group game in Division Two last spring, Paul Bealin can point to a wonderful display in copper-fastening second tier status in Cusack Park in April 2012 by the maroon and whites. There was also a very flattering six-point win by Derry in the Croke Park divisional final a little over a year later (albeit Pat Flanagan was wearing the bainisteoir’s bib on both occasions).
The 1995 All-Ireland winning Dubliner has a few conundrums on his hands, two of which concern the positioning of the two men who jointly held aloft the Flanagan Cup last autumn. Frankly, Westmeath captain Paul Sharry has disappointed in a primarily-attacking role in the two outings to date, with a move to defence, or midfield, being touted by some supporters.
John Heslin’s sublime skills are not in question – witness Jim Gavin having him double-marked on February 9. This columnist saw Heslin turn in a wonderful display in arguably his most effective position at centre half forward when he skippered UCD to a Sigerson Cup victory against the home team in Athlone IT on January 28.
Indeed, a noteworthy feature of that game was how two other integral members of the Westmeath team, Kieran Martin and Ger Egan, revelled in roles for their defeated college further out the field than those allocated to them for their county in our two league defeats to date.
Last week's display by the Westmeath U21s in their drawn clash against Longford was highly encouraging (sadly from the Lake County's point of view, Longford won the replay), and I suspect that Castledaly’s Paddy Holloway and Rosemount’s David McCormack are not too far away from promotion to the senior team very shortly.
Westmeath played two challenges last week against Roscommon (a six-point win for Bealin’s charges on Thursday) and Longford (a two-point defeat on Saturday). When I spoke to him about the senior camp after the aforementioned creditable draw with Longford in his other role as U21 manager, the Dubliner commented as follows: “In Division 1 football, time on the ball and space on the ball is at a premium. If you make mistakes, you’ll be punished. We’re going to do our very, very best to prepare for Derry."
“Things are going ok in terms of injuries. John Heslin should be ok, touch wood. We have a few niggly injuries, but with the exception of Alan Giles I think we’ll have a full squad to pick from," he added.
Wouldn’t it be just wonderful if Westmeath could jump 'Becher’s Brook’ next Sunday in Derry? Who knows where our spring 'Grand National’ could end if we do.
The previous 14 games in the league between next Sunday’s opponents have resulted as follows.
February 4, 1973, Magherafelt, Derry 1-13 Westmeath 1-3
February 3, 1974, Kinnegad, Derry 2-7 Westmeath 0-5
March 5, 1978, Castletown-Geoghegan, Westmeath 1-7 Derry 0-9
October 8, 1978, Ballinascreen, Derry 3-11 Westmeath 0-10
April 8, 1979, Cusack Park, Derry 1-9 Westmeath 0-8
October 7, 1979, Magherafelt, Derry 1-15 Westmeath 1-4
December 1, 1985, Lavey, Derry 1-11Westmeath 0-3
April 3, 1994, Enniskillen, Westmeath 3-6 Derry 0-11 (NFL quarter-final)
October 19, 1997, Ballinascreen, Westmeath 0-10 Derry 0-10
February 11, 2007, Derry, Westmeath 3-10 Derry 1-9
February 15, 2009, Ballinascreen, Derry 1-18 Westmeath 0-7
April 8, 2012, Cusack Park, Westmeath 1-15 Derry 0-10
April 7, 2013, Derry, Derry 2-17 Westmeath 1-5
April 28, 2013, Croke Park, Derry 1-18 Westmeath 0-15 (Division 2 final)