Niall Mitchell (The Downs) in action against Athlone duo Paddy Ryan and James Finlass during last year’s Westmeath SFC. PHOTO: JOHN MCCAULEY.

Mitchell hoping for a ‘big performance’ from The Downs

By Gerry Buckley

Given his pivotal role recently in ending The Downs’ 17-year Flanagan Cup famine, it is surely safe to say that had Niall Mitchell been plying his trades as a hurler and footballer in bygone days when dual inter-county players abounded, the towering attacker would be looming large in the thoughts of new Westmeath bainisteoir Dessie Dolan.

However, Mitchell is committed to Joe Fortune’s small ball set-up. When he spoke to this columnist on Sunday night, he clarified his plans thus: “I know the football people want me to play for the county but, at the end of the day, I’m with the hurlers for seven years now and we have a strong team.

“I’m great friends with a lot of the lads, and next year we’re up against the top teams in both Division 1and the Leinster championship.

“Once the football is over with The Downs – and I hope that’s not for a long time – I might take a week’s holiday and then I’ll get back in with the hurlers.”

For now, his focus is entirely on Jones’ Road next Saturday at 5.15pm and a mouth-watering Leinster semi-final against Ratoath. The other semi-final is between defending Leinster champions Kilmacud Crokes and Portarlington of Laois (Croke Park, Saturday, 7pm).

Mitchell stated: “We are a driven bunch and we want to see how far we can go now that we have won the Westmeath title after years of trying. We are a confident young team and we are really looking forward to Croke Park on Saturday. Not too many clubs get to play there. If you’re lucky enough, you might get to play there with your county. It is every club player’s dream to get there.

“We’re at the right age now. We’re not too young and we have very few lads in or around 30. I’d like to think we’re in our prime. We’re anxious to put in a good performance, whether or not the result goes our way. If we perform to our capabilities, we’ll be there or thereabouts, definitely.”

He conceded: “Ratoath will be a step-up in class from Ardee. They gave the ball away a bit and we controlled possession against them, and I’d imagine Ratoath are going to be a lot safer with the ball.

“Lar’s (Wall) preparation is 100 per cent. He knows a lot about them from his time with Kells. It’s another blue jersey we’ll be facing after St Loman’s and Ardee.

“I imagine it would be sweet for him after Kells’ narrow loss to Ratoath in his time there, but he’ll just be focusing on our game plan,” he added.

The powerful forward accepted that “at this time of year, after long campaigns, there will always be a couple of niggles, but we’ll be going out with a strong team regardless of who plays and who comes on. Tom Tuite and Liam Moran were missing the last day, but they’re back in contention.”

The widely-held view was that The Downs’ four Westmeath panellists - who had been away with the county squad in Mexico in the lead-up to the Ardee game - had all played very well against the Louth champions. Mitchell agreed, saying: “Collectively, it was the best displays this year for Kevin (O’Sullivan), Charlie (Drumm), Jonathan (Lynam) and Trevor (Martin). We knew the opportunity we had and the lads were very well-mannered on the holiday. The only thing we worried about was the jet lag, but they all trained on the Friday night before the game, and recovered on the Saturday.”

Should the men in black and amber prevail next Saturday, they will replicate the achievement of Dom Murtagh and his merry men exactly 50 campaigns ago (1972/73) by reaching a provincial final. Understandably, this has crossed the minds of Mitchell and his 2022/23 colleagues.

“It would be very special for the club and for the county, as not too many Westmeath clubs have got to a final. Ratoath are a physical side and have been round a good bit,” he continued.

“They are probably two or three years ahead of us in age profile and they had a tough game against Rhode, tougher than we had against Ardee.

“They have shown that they can beat experienced teams like Rhode. They will be full of confidence. Hopefully, we’ll be there or thereabouts after 50/55 minutes, as we have been good at closing out games this year.”

Remarkably, given Westmeath’s appalling record against Meath in the Leinster senior football championship until THAT day in 2015, Lake County teams have a great record against their Royal County counterparts in the club equivalent (Westmeath teams have won nine out of the 13 fixtures to date).

The Downs have a 50:50 record in their two games against Royal County opposition, Kilbride and Summerhill, while Ratoath lost their only tie in the Westmeath v Meath rivalry when edged out by Garrycastle three years ago.

Previous Westmeath v Meath club clashes

The 13 previous Westmeath v Meath encounters resulted as follows:

11/4/1971, Cusack Park, The Downs 0-8, Kilbride 0-7

21/11/1971, Navan, Athlone 0-10, Kilbride 0-5

24/11/1974, Navan, Summerhill 2-7, The Downs 2-3

16/11/1975, Cusack Park, Moate 1-9, Summerhill 0-7

13/11/1977, Navan, Summerhill 2-13, Athlone 2-10

17/10/1982, Athlone, Athlone 2-5, Summerhill 1-5

21/10/1984, Athlone, Athlone 1-12, Walterstown 0-7

3/11/1990, Castletown Geoghegan, Mullingar Shamrocks 1-8, Navan O’Mahony’s 1-5

14/11/1993, Castletown Geoghegan, Mullingar Shamrocks 1-11, Skyrne 1-7

28/10/1995, Navan, Dunderry 1-10, Mullingar Shamrocks 0-8

9/11/2008, Navan, Navan O’Mahony’s 1-17, Castledaly 0-4

26/11/2017, TEG Cusack Park, St Loman’s, Mullingar 0-13, Simonstown Gaels 1-8

10/11/2019, TEG Cusack Park, Garrycastle 3-11, Ratoath 2-12.