Westmeath senior football manager Dessie Dolan. Photo: Ken Finegan.

Dolan insists players should be ‘excited’ over facing big guns

Westmeath are facing into three very daunting tests in the All-Ireland SFC group stages - but team manager Dessie Dolan insists it’s a challenge that the players should embrace and enjoy.

Armagh – who recently lost a dramatic Ulster final to Derry on penalties - are first on the menu for Westmeath this Saturday (Athletic Grounds, 4.45pm). This will be followed by last year’s All-Ireland finalists Galway coming to TEG Cusack Park, before a meeting with 2021 All-Ireland champions Tyrone at a neutral venue.

“It couldn’t be any tougher but to be honest, if I was a player in the dressing room and I heard I was going to be playing three of the best teams in the country, I’d be very excited. And I do think if we can play for the full 70 minutes and get that consistency, I think we’d give any team trouble. That’s what we have to work on and that’s what we are working on,” said Dolan.

Despite the crushing nature of the Leinster quarter-final defeat to Louth, there was no sense of despondency in the Westmeath football camp last Saturday morning as players and management gathered in Athlone’s Kafe U, across from the TUS Campus.

The players enjoyed a relaxed breakfast at the Athlone cafe, followed by some video analysis and a training session at the TUS facilities. Overall, the Westmeath manager is pleased with the way the players have responded to the Louth defeat.

“To be fair to the players, everybody turned up for training on the following Thursday and everyone wants to put their shoulder to the wheel. In the Leinster championship, we wanted to get to the final and have a cut at it, but you have to dust yourself off pretty quickly and understand that there is a massive competition coming and that’s the All-Ireland series. The lads have applied themselves really well,” he said.

Reflecting on the defeat to Louth, Dolan described the second half as “very disappointing from our perspective”. He added that his players “had put in a very good performance” in the first half but admitted that the team suffered “a bad lapse” in the second period.

The substitutions made against Louth proved a major talking point among Westmeath fans afterwards as the changes didn’t have the impact required, but Dolan felt a lack of composure was a more significant factor.

“Momentum went against us. A key decision was the penalty. At the time I thought it was soft and I still think it was soft, but it gave them great momentum. We still had opportunities but we lost that bit of composure. The players who came on didn’t necessarily change the way we were playing; I think we just lacked that bit of control and composure,” he said.

Bad luck also played a part on the day with key players Sam McCartan and James Dolan unable to start the game, with McCartan missing out completely through illness and Dolan restricted to a cameo role.

In terms of injury worries ahead of the Armagh clash, the Westmeath manager said: “Ronan Wallace is in a cast and is an obvious concern. Ronan has a fracture in his hand and is obviously in bother. Nigel Harte will be out I’d say, he got injured in a club game.

“We’re trying to get all the bodies back as quick as we can. It’s attritional; you’re playing three big games in effectively four weeks. It will be hard on the bodies and hard on the panel so we’ll need everybody.”

Dolan described recent challenge matches against Roscommon and Donegal as “two good tests”. “Training has been good and we’ve done a bit of team building. There is a good spirit among the lads. They like each other’s company and that’s very important. Football is great but it’s important that they enjoy what they’re doing,” he said.

Looking ahead to the challenge Armagh will bring, Dolan is well aware of the threat posed by players like attacking ace Rian O’Neill and the Orchard County’s vociferous supporters.

“I was up in Clones (for the Ulster final) and there was incredible support for Armagh. We’re playing them in the Athletic Grounds; it’s a brilliant stadium, a lovely venue. It will be packed and it will be an intimidating atmosphere. It will be fairly hostile and that’s what you expect when you go to Ulster venues. The odds are stacked against us but if we go up and put in a performance, you never know what will happen,” said the former Garrycastle star.

In Ethan Rafferty, Armagh have a notable example of a goalkeeper who comes out the field to launch attacks and indeed he got on the scoresheet twice from open play in the Ulster decider.

“Ethan Rafferty is an outfield player who has been converted (into a goalkeeper). He’s not your typical goalie that runs around the place. He got four shots off the last day, and he got a great point with the outside of the boot,” said Dolan.

“He gets on a lot of ball and connects a lot of play. He obviously will be a topic of discussion because he has a big influence on a game. With teams being so safe in possession, if you get a chance to launch counter attacks when he’s out of position, you have to look up and see what options are available.”

“If there is one part of our game that has disappointed me, it’s that we haven’t just brought that consistency of performance for the full 70 minutes. We’re working on it and we’re aware that we need to bring that bit of composure at the right time. It will be a big test in these games because we’ll be under the cosh and it’s about how we respond,” Dessie continued.

And Dolan hopes for a huge Westmeath crowd when Galway come to TEG Cusack Park on Saturday week.

“Galway will be coming to Mullingar with some star-studded players - the likes of Shane Walsh and Damien Comer, with John Heslin and Ronan O’Toole on the other side. These are massive matches.

“Last year we played Laois, Carlow, Offaly and Cavan (in the Tailteann Cup). It’s a different level we’re at and we have to understand that. By winning the Tailteann Cup last year, the lads earned the right to play in these games.

“These are the top teams in the country we’re playing against. I’d be very excited as a Westmeath supporter - if they can come to the games (in big numbers), it would be brilliant. If I was a footballer, I’d be very excited looking forward to playing in the All-Ireland series in an electric atmosphere.

“I hope the Westmeath supporters come out and support us and any support is greatly appreciated. As a player I always thought it was important to play for the supporters as there are great people who have supported the Westmeath team over many years. It would be great if we could get a big crowd in Mullingar for the Galway game. Hopefully the kids and their parents will come along and bring a bit of noise to the place,” Dolan added.