Westmeath's Davy Glennon battles against his native against Galway last Sunday in TEG Cusack Park. On Saturday, he and his colleagues take on Laois in the relegation play-off in Thurles.

Dead rubber game in football and dead important game in hurling

The Gerry Buckley Column

Football-mad Fr Brian Darcy is an ever-present at Fermanagh games, home and away. His undoubted sincerity as a priest shone through to me a year ago in TEG Cusack Park when I asked him to say a Mass for a special friend who had died.

Indeed, he remembered this request when he passed by three disgruntled men from the Westmeath media in the very impressive St Joseph’s Park in Ederney last Saturday, after his side had well and truly beaten the Lake County, albeit by just a point on the scoreboard.

When I opined to him that “if we had won today, I would be asking you to hear my Confession for stealing”, he replied: “You should have done it last year, as ye robbed us in Mullingar!"

His trademark hearty laugh ensued as we recalled Sean Quigley’s disallowed ‘point’, which everybody bar the all-important white flag umpire beside the scoreboard end of TEG Cusack Park was sure was a valid score. Accordingly, a draw was what the referee recorded.

A similar share of the spoils almost occurred last Saturday, but Nigel Harte’s brave attempt with the second last kick of the contest tailed wide. With four drawn ties from 16 previous league encounters, I had suggested pre-match to some gamblers that it could happen again between two evenly-matched sides. However, on the day, Kieran Donnelly’s troops were unquestionably the better outfit and they retain very realistic promotion hopes next weekend. And good luck to them.

Sadly, from a Westmeath’s perspective, hopes of Division 2 football in 2024 died a death in Ederney. Knock-out games can occasionally spring surprises, but league tables tend not to lie and three defeats from six games (albeit on paper by three, two and one points respectively) have ensured another third tier spring for Dessie Dolan’s charges.

It all means that already-relegated Tipperary come to Mullingar next Sunday for the deadest of dead rubbers. Football fans in that hurling-mad county are few and far between (my good friend Michael O’Sullivan being a noteworthy exception, despite most of his days having been spent in Rochfortbridge), while Westmeath's own fan base – in both codes – has dwindled to a frustratingly low level. There will be no need for gardaí on horseback outside TEG Cusack Park next Sunday!

Westmeath and Tipp first met in the National Football League on November 14, 1965 in Cusack Park (nine more games have taken place since). I recall the day vividly despite being a mere nine-years-old, as we also played Down in hurling as part of a double-header. My regret was that we were facing a top hurling county in football, and vice versa. The day was so cold that I was unable to tie my shoe laces and the walk home to the Longford Rd was treacherous. My late parents told me that I would “eventually get sense” supporting Westmeath. They were wrong!

One can only assume that Dolan will use the game to try out some players ahead of the Leinster championship opener against Louth on April 23. The Wee County supremo Mickey Harte was an interested spectator in Ederney, and his team are currently over-achieving in the aforementioned Division 2. Star attacker Sam Mulroy has been already ruled out of that game with injury, but Westmeath’s task looks mammoth at this juncture, given their inconsistency to date in 2023. Lots more on that down the line, please God.

This young Westmeath fanatic’s hope in 1965 that the county's hurlers would be playing the Tipps of this world has only come to pass very intermittently in the 57-plus years since that freezing day. In truth, the alteration of the leagues to spring rather than winter/spring means that shock results are extremely unlikely, with the small ball elite having one eye firmly on the upcoming championship, and with point-scoring infinitely easier than it was in bygone days when 20-point or more totals (even forgetting about goals) were extremely rare.

Joe Fortune’s frustration at some bad beatings this spring is understandable. All of us who care share it and realis

e that a huge effort is going on behind the scenes. Given the absence of injured and unavailable players, Carrontuohill has become Kilimanjaro in recent weeks for the men in maroon and white.

However, Laois is more akin to Knockeyon for Fortune's dedicated hurlers and, while Westmeath's overall record against the O’Moore County has been disappointing, there is certainly no inferiority complex when faced with the dark blue jerseys with a white hoop. Most of us felt that Westmeath were entitled to home advantage for next Saturday’s crucial relegation play-off, but it seems that it was pre-ordained before a sliotar was pucked that a neutral venue would be used and it has been confirmed that FBD Semple Stadium in Thurles will host the game (throw-in 2pm.

We all know that Westmeath are well capable of beating Willie Maher’s charges in five days from now. The distinctive figure of ‘Cheddar’ Plunkett will be missing from the sideline, his reign ending after a superb second half display by the visitors ensured a rare hammering for the home team at Westmeath’s hands in last year’s Leinster championship all-or-nothing tie. As stated, yours truly’s memory goes back to the mid-1960s and the performance in MW Hire Park in May last was one of the best I have been privileged to witness. We all hope for a repeat on Saturday.

The teams and scorers from Westmeath’s 5-24 to 1-18 win on May 21 last were:

Scorers - Westmeath: K Doyle 0-8 (4f), E Keyes 2-1, N O’Brien 1-3, N Mitchell 2-0, J Boyle 0-4, D Glennon 0-3, J Galvin 0-2, A Craig, J Gillen and C Boyle 0-1 each. Laois: R King 0-6 (1f, 1‘65’), P Purcell 1-1, E Rowland 0-4 (4f), J Keyes 0-3, B Conroy 0-2, C Dwyer and P Dunne 0-1 each.

Westmeath: Noel Conaty; Darragh Egerton, Tommy Doyle, Conor Shaw; Aaron Craig, Aonghus Clarke, Jack Galvin; Cormac Boyle, Robbie Greville; Joey Boyle, Killian Doyle, Niall Mitchell; Niall O'Brien, Eoin Keyes, Davy Glennon. Subs used: Derek McNicholas for O’Brien (57), Kevin Regan for C Boyle (61), Shane McGovern for Greville (66), Jack Gillen for Keyes (68), Alan Cox for Glennon (70 + 1).

Laois: Enda Rowland; Padraic Dunne, Seán Downey, Donnchadh Hartnett; Ryan Mullaney, Liam O'Connell, Ciaran McEvoy; Jack Kelly, Paddy Purcell; James Keyes, Cha Dwyer, Ben Conroy; Stephen Maher, Ross King, Fiachra C Fennell. Subs used: Aidan Corby for Dunne (h-t), PJ Scully for Maher (54), Tomás Keyes for Kelly (54), Willie Dunphy for Conroy (56), Eric Killeen for Mullaney (57).