Westmeath manager Joe Fortune will be hoping that his team record their first win in this year’s Joe McDonagh Cup when they face Meath on Saturday. Pic Philip Walsh

Westmeath hurlers facing crucial game against Meath

“Bad and all as our hurlers are going, we will surely beat Meath.”

If I had a euro for every time I have heard that utterly ridiculous sentence, or a variation thereof, over the past ten days since ‘Jogger’ Doyle rescued Westmeath's first Joe McDonagh Cup point of 2024 in Ballycran, I would be hiring a chauffeur to drive me the short distance from my home to TEG Cusack Park next Saturday to witness the county's penultimate game in said competition against their Royal neighbours.

The game’s penultimate status was disappointingly copper-fastened in the picturesque Co Down venue when Joe Fortune’s charges’ hopes of making the tier two hurling championship final changed from ‘highly unlikely’ to ‘impossible’ after five of the opening six points on offer had been dropped. With some solid Division 1 performances in the bank, Westmeath were deemed to be one of the pre-tournament favourites, but successive losses to Kerry and Offaly preceded the hard-earned and fatal draw in the Ards peninsula.

Now the focus has changed to a very real challenge to avoid an ignominious drop to the Christy Ring Cup. The trapdoor to tier three will almost certainly open if the hosts in Mullingar are beaten by a green and gold-clad side who are definitely not going well, but will undoubtedly raise their game at the sight of a team in maroon and white on Saturday.

Meath, under the interim management of Kilmessan’s Steven Clynch, after the sudden departure of Seoirse Bulfin, will view next weekend’s game as a genuine opportunity to rescue their bitterly disappointing season with a one-off display which could preserve their Joe McDonagh Cup status for 2025. After three games, Meath are rock bottom in the table with three defeats and a score difference of minus 60. Westmeath are second from bottom with one point on the board and a score difference of minus 12.

Westmeath have generally had a slightly higher profile than Meath in the small ball game over the years, but there has seldom been much between the teams in head-to-head clashes.

As for ‘surely beating them’, the last time I heard such words being used was ahead of Westmeath's Leinster SFC clash with Wicklow. Now remind me again, how did that ‘surely win’ game end? Nothing less than 100 per cent commitment to the cause will suffice on Saturday. Complacency can simply not be tolerated in the home camp.

Westmeath v Meath – recent hurling meetings

The five championship games between the neighbouring counties this millennium have resulted as follows:

18/6/2005, Navan, Meath 3-16 Westmeath 2-10 (Christy Ring Cup)

16/6/2007, Navan, Westmeath 1-19 Meath 2-16 [draw] (Christy Ring Cup)

14/5/2017, TEG Cusack Park, Westmeath 1-18 Meath 0-19 (Leinster SHC)

13/5/2018, TEG Cusack Park, Westmeath 4-24 Meath 2-17 (Joe McDonagh Cup)

21/11/2020, Navan, Westmeath 2-20 Meath 1-19 (Joe McDonagh Cup)

Westmeath to start with Armagh trip

Another quote, and this time from my long-time lady partner: “I am not going to Armagh with you this time round, for love or money!” It came just after 6.30pm two days ago when Donegal goalkeeper Shaun Patton denied Shane McPartlan with an Ulster SFC title-clinching sudden death save, edging out Armagh 6-5 on penalty kicks, after the sides had been deadlocked on 0-20 each after extra-time at Clones.

The latest Orchard County heartache from the spot guaranteed that Dessie Dolan’s troops have two exact re-fixtures from 2023 in the Sam Maguire Cup. As for the quote, yes, I have to own up and say that my post-match tantrum in the BOX-IT Athletic Grounds 12 months ago lasted all the way back to Mullingar, after the Lake County had spurned a really glorious chance to garner a famous win against Kieran McGeeney’s men.

It is very frustrating to face Armagh away (May 25/26) and Galway at home (June 1/2) as was the case last year. Given that spells in the Tailteann Cup seem inevitable in years to come as a new team is put together by Dolan and/or his successor(s), it is highly unappetising to face the same two teams at the same two venues.

The small matter of squaring up to a formidable Derry outfit in mid-June, again possibly at the same venue (Cavan) where Westmeath faced the 2023 third seed in their group, Tyrone, has a further monotonous feel to it.

However, we are where we are, and despite the surprise element being gone after Westmeath's near-heroics last summer, the games are sure to attract more Lake County fans than would have been the case in the tier two equivalent. It might have been difficult to motivate some vital players for a competition Westmeath famously won in its inaugural year (2022).

Westmeath's group has been labelled ‘the group of death’, but let’s be blunt and state that Armagh, Galway and Derry will unquestionably expect to beat the Lake men en route to knockout football. However, that old ‘surely we’ll beat them’ mentality referred to above is a dangerous attitude to have.

In the interim, the building of a new team continues next Saturday when Damien Gavin’s U20 side face Down in the All-Ireland ‘B’ final. Those of us present in Limerick on May 15, 1999, exactly 25 years ago, will bring to our graves the memories of a magnificent win by Luke Dempsey’s U21s (as the grade was then) against a very strong Jack O’Connor-managed Kerry team in the ‘A’ All-Ireland final.

Apart from a memorable provincial double in 2000, Westmeath's record in the ‘proper’ competition has been downright poor since, as has been the case with the county's minors (U18/17). Beggars can’t be choosers, however, and any silverware with maroon and white ribbons attached is most welcome.

Let us hope that a large Westmeath following is present at Páirc Tailteann, Navan on Saturday (2.15pm). A winning mentality will be a huge addition to the skillset of future senior stars.