Westmeath football manager Jack Cooney. Photo: Michael O'Rourke.

2021 football format ‘another missed opportunity’

Westmeath football manager Jack Cooney has described the format chosen by the GAA for this year’s All-Ireland SFC as “another missed opportunity to try something really novel”.

Westmeath have been drawn against Laois in the quarter-finals of the 2021 Leinster SFC and, similar to 2020, there will be no second chance for teams beaten in their province.

“It’s disappointing that there isn’t a back door or qualifiers. I think there was possibly an opportunity to bring that in,” Cooney told the Westmeath Independent.

“It’s another missed opportunity to try something really novel, I think. With the pandemic, we’re in unchartered waters and it was a really good opportunity to try something different,” he continued.

The Westmeath manager admitted it was a great relief for the squad to get back on the training pitch last week.

“The lads have been tipping away, they’ve been training on their own. They were all delighted to get back on the pitch collectively last week. The thing now is to train very smartly, so you don’t try to pack in too much, too soon, because it’s important to keep the players fit and on the pitch,” he said. “I don’t know what the right formula is, there is a lot of science out there, but you’re just trying to manage the training load, and at the same time trying to keep lads fresh. We have a lot of work to pack into four weeks.”

With the National Leagues in football and hurling starting much later than anticipated, Cooney said: “It’s a very, very tight window to prepare for the start of the league; it’s too tight really.

“But I suppose it’s the same for everybody, for every county. You just have to manage the process. It’s a different situation than what we are normally accustomed to. We have to work our way through it. We have to try and keep players fit, not just for the here and now, but we’re going to be playing three league games in a hectic two weeks.”

Westmeath will face Meath in their opening game in Division 2 North of the Allianz Football League at Páirc Tailteann on Sunday, May 16. Being from Kinnegad, Cooney is keenly aware of the traditional rivalry between Westmeath and Meath, and he expects a demanding opening assignment.

“Any team that’s coming down from Division 1 is going to be a tough start. Obviously they’ve been playing at a perceived higher level the previous season and they would have learned a lot up there. There’s no doubt they’ll be overwhelming favourites,” said Cooney.

“It’s a good game to start with and even though it’s an away game for us in Navan, it’s a pity that supporters won’t be able to go as it would have been a nice opener for the league.”

After the opening round against Meath, Westmeath will have home games against Mayo (All-Ireland finalists last year) and Down on May 22 and May 30 respectively.

Cooney is encouraged by the “great energy” within the panel since the players returned to collective training.

“They definitely enjoyed the time out as they were able to get on top of any niggly injuries that they were carrying over from last year. Inter-county players don’t normally get that kind of time off so from a players’ perspective, it has been a very good thing for them to have that time off.”

Asked about his views on facing Laois down the line, Cooney responded: “We’ll hope to be bringing some decent league form into it. That championship game will be on top of us very quickly once the league is finished. We have a lot of work to do between now and then. When the time is right, we’ll focus on that game.”

With All-Ireland champions Dublin, winners of the last ten Leinster titles, still casting a very deep shadow over the province, Cooney said: “I suppose you could say, tongue in cheek, that it would be a great Leinster championship if Dublin weren’t in it! We came up against them last year and we put in a respectable performance. But we’re just working towards the Meath match now. We have to get through the league and see where we are after that.

“Players are putting in a great effort. It’s a massive commitment for inter-county players at the moment and they deserve huge credit,” Cooney continued.

“What we’ve tried to do is to give an opportunity to young players who have impressed with their clubs to spend time with us and see what the environment is like. It’s very difficult for players to come straight in and cut it at that level; it’s rare. There is a lot of conditioning and learning required to get up to the level physically.

"We’ve brought in a number of players and they’re all enjoying it. We always have one eye on the future. While we’re here for the here and now, our philosophy has been to try and develop players for the future and we’ll continue with that.”

The Westmeath panel contains about 35 players at present, with a league panel likely to be finalised by early next week. Maryland's Kieran Martin was team captain for the past two years, but no skipper has been confirmed for the 2021 season yet.

All the established players are on board for another campaign, and Cooney hopes Ger Egan will have better fortune on the injury front this year. “Ger is back and he’s happy that he’s able to train without pain and discomfort. He’s had a tough year and a half, and he’s delighted to be back on the pitch,” he said.

Cooney admitted that the recent Lake County Movathon Challenge fundraiser was a boost for everybody involved with Westmeath teams.

“It probably had a slow start but once it got closer to the finishing line, there was a huge amount of momentum. I thought it was a great initiative because it was hurlers, footballers, and the camogie and ladies football associations all working together. There are several ways of measuring it – you can measure it on money raised or on the amount of people who participated,” added Cooney.

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