Westmeath senior hurling manager, Joe Fortune at TEG Cusack Park, Mullingar recently. Photo: John McCauley

Fortune: ‘I’ll give everything I have to the Westmeath cause’

“I received an incredibly warm welcome from people on the ground in TEG Cusack Park the weekend before last.”

When newly-installed Westmeath senior hurling manager Joe Fortune kindly used his mid-morning break earlier this week in St Oliver Plunkett’s national school in Malahide – where he has taught for the past 20 years – to talk to this columnist, he was at pains to acknowledge how pleased he was to be so well received in Mullingar ten days ago.

Of course, more importantly, he was delighted that the fare on offer confirmed for him what he already suspected, i.e. that there is no shortage of quality stickmen in Lake County hurling.

The Enniscorthy native has vivid memories of wearing the bainisteoir’s bib in clashes against Westmeath teams, as he reflected: “I’ve had some significant battles with Westmeath over the years, both with Dublin squads and with Ballyboden (St Enda’s). In 2014, at the U21 game when I managed Dublin, I will never forget the support that Westmeath had that night. We were expected just to waltz into Cusack Park and waltz home again. I’ll never forget the passion and hunger of the Westmeath fans that night.

“Niall O’Brien had a penalty saved near the end by Conor Dooley, and I spoke to Anthony Daly (the Dublin senior manager at the time) and told him we were absolutely so lucky to win that game. In 2016, the Westmeath U21 team that shocked Eddie Brennan’s Kilkenny played Dublin in Parnell Park and we just got over them with two late Chris Bennett goals.

“However, the match that stands out the most was in 2018, the Clonkill game (an extra-time classic won by Ballyboden St Enda’s). We all love our hurling, but I’ll never forget the sense of loss and sadness that surrounded Clonkill that night (due to the tragic death of three-year-old Annabel Loughlin).

“I said to our players beforehand that no matter what happens tonight – win, lose or draw – you’ll stand to a man after the match and show your appreciation to Clonkill. I saw a community and a group of people unite behind a team under really difficult circumstances,” he added.

He continued: “Coming into this job, I’m going need the Westmeath supporters and the public, the County Board and the clubs, the media, all to get on board, and back me in what I’m going to try and do.

“It’s very important that the right Westmeath people on the ground are involved. I’ve spoken to a couple of players only, as I don’t want to interfere with the work that their clubs are doing, as I know what it is like as a club manager to have a county manager in the background, especially at this significant stage of the year. I’ll give everything I have to the Westmeath cause.”

Fortune is well aware of his new charges’ somewhat topsy-turvy 2021, as he outlined: “Winning the Joe McDonagh Cup this year was great for Westmeath hurling, but there was probably deep disappointment with what happened a week later (an entirely avoidable Division 1 relegation play-off loss to Laois).

“My job now is to get this team back to Division 1, and also that we look at playing Leinster championship hurling as not just being a ‘token gesture’. I know that the talent is there. It’s a question of whether we can unite everybody who wants to progress Westmeath hurling.”

Understandably, the new manager conceded that “there will be a learning process for a while”, but he is very aware of the quality of Westmeath’s better-known players. He continued: “I saw Senior ‘A’ matches last weekend and I watched Aonghus Clarke, and I don’t know if I’ve ever managed a better hurler. He is an absolutely fantastic player. But I don’t just want to concentrate on that division. I want to go and see games in other divisions. There’s always a gem in a club that you mightn’t see too often.

“Tommy Doyle is a colossus of the Westmeath team. I recall the two Doyles (Killian and Ciaran), (Darragh) Clinton and (Niall) Mitchell from underage days. There’s a lot of young guys who impressed me last weekend also, the likes of Shane Williams (Lough Lene Gaels), and a couple of minors coming through that I would have been very impressed with. I’d love to get Liam Varley back on board as well.”

The Wexford man will not be divulging his management team just yet, as he explained: “I’m coming with a backroom team that I’m not going to announce yet. Two of the guys that I’m bringing with me are still involved in club situations and I don’t want to impact on them. I will have a very good guy with me who is very well known from a coaching and performance point of view.”

He continued: “From what I know, the Walsh Cup and Kehoe Cup are not happening this winter, so my initial focus is on getting Westmeath up to Division 1 again. We need to be hurling at that level. It’s not going to be a ‘sticking plaster’ job for me. I want to progress Westmeath hurling in the long term.

"We will have a lot of work to do in the winter months facing into some tough games in Division 2A. Let’s be honest, Kildare came very close to beating Westmeath this year. Kerry, especially under new manager Stephen Molumphy, will be there or thereabouts. Down will be difficult, especially if we face a trip up there. I’m under no illusions about the task ahead.”

“I’ll do all I can, but I will need the support of the people. I know I have a good panel of players. After the club championships end, I’ll ensure that I put the right Westmeath people in place to make sure that we make this a really positive venture for the next couple of years,” he concluded.

— Gerry Buckley