James Dolan of Westmeath in action against Conor Glass of Derry during Saturday evening’s match. The Garrycastle man has announced that he is retiring form inter-county football. Photo by Sam Barnes/Sportsfile

Hard to Hyde the disappointment

I hadn’t attended a senior football championship match in Hyde Park in 23 years until last Sunday, and Mayo played that day as well – and didn’t even get a draw!

Of course, it wasn’t an all-conquering Dublin team that the Connacht men faced on July 21, 2001, but my beloved Westmeath in what was for us an astonishing sixth championship game (and with two more to come). Don’t forget I grew up in an era when our Leinster SFC game was referred to as ‘the annual outing’!

Exactly 36 years ago, I was part of a gang of seven who spent eight unforgettable days in West Germany for Euro 88. One lad with me – we were ‘lads’ then! – who is far less into following the Lake County than me, often says that the fabulous one-point victory against the men in green and red that day is right up there with Ray Houghton’s goal in his all-time sporting memories.

It was hard not to reminisce in Roscommon two days ago recalling the wonderful side which Luke Dempsey had masterminded into being one of the leading teams in the country, very comfortably in the top eight. Indeed, but for a certain Ollie Murphy it is not inconceivable that Sam Maguire may have travelled down the N4 in September 2001. The reality is that most of the time over the past decade we are roughly 16th in the national pecking order.

You need to see games in the flesh to make reasoned judgments on their merits and, in truth, Sunday’s game was streets ahead of the Derry v Westmeath encounter in Newry 21 hours earlier. The pace was hectic by comparison and while the Dubs have some ageing bodies in their ranks a la the Lake County, most of them are still playing close to their best form.

After the four-point loss to Mickey Harte’s troops, James Dolan quit inter-county football, thereby becoming the first retiree of what is widely expected to be a significant handful of great servants in maroon and white. Incidentally, why did we have to wear largely green jerseys in Páirc Esler against a side in white with a red hoop? We owe the Garrycastle man a huge debt for wonderful service in both attack and defence.

Father Time has no pets, and I often reflect back on the year 2011 when I was Westmeath’s (unpaid, let me clarify) travelling stats man at the request of then-manager Pat Flanagan. I used pen and paper. Nowadays, a team of stats men have an assortment of computerised gadgets, an indication of how much goes into an ‘amateur’ set-up in 2024.

We had a very strong U21 team that year, well capable of winning an All-Ireland. Indeed, I recall Laois manager Pat Roe coming into the Westmeath dressing room in Portlaoise after our first round win and saying how well we would represent Leinster in the All-Ireland stages! Another win followed v Offaly before being sucker-punched by Longford in the provincial semi-final in Navan.

That multi-talented side included the aforementioned Dolan, in addition to generational talents at either end of the pitch in Kevin Maguire and John Heslin. Throw in Kieran Martin, Ger Egan, Callum McCormack, Tommy McDaniel, Daragh Daly, Mark McCallon, and skipper Conor Lynam (a huge loss when he moved to the USA). Agree now re All-Ireland potential?

It is only natural that an U21 team from 13 years ago can no longer be expected to supply our senior squad with the requisite talent. Sadly, it was 2010 that we last contested a Leinster final in the grade, James Durkan’s unfortunate late miss meaning a heartbreaking loss to Dublin in Parnell Park.

It is entirely understandable why Westmeath Gaels are nervous as to what the next few years will bring on the senior football front. Replacements, not just for retirees but for players clearly struggling in the senior ranks, look thin on the ground. Dessie Dolan’s own future is unclear in the bainisteoir’s bib, but he has done very well to guide the team to Division 2 next year. The trick now is staying there, with a hat-trick of appearances in Sam the target for 2025.

Dolan can also be mightily proud of all six displays in the top tier in 2023 and 2024, and he is decidedly unfortunate not to have won at least one game. Derry were highly beatable in Newry, but it was certainly not for the want of wholehearted endeavour by the players. Unfortunately, tallies of 0-11, 0-11 and 0-9 in this year’s matches simply won’t suffice at a certain level, but the defending was heroic.

Sticking with that theme, it would be churlish not to acknowledge the great work done by outgoing hurling manager Joe Fortune who stepped down a week ago after three years which contained several high points. Who will ever forget that marvellous championship victory in Wexford Park last summer? Sadly, age is catching up with some key hurlers also, albeit the replacements seem more clear-cut in the small ball game.

The reality is that Offaly have moved nicely ahead of their northern neighbours in the pecking order, while Laois, Carlow and Antrim also look to be marginally stronger than us going forward. Throw in Kerry, whose win in TEG Cusack Park all but scuppered Fortune’s side on day one of the Joe McDonagh Cup. It is clear that the Wexford native’s successor has a job of work on his hands.

Let’s hope that the upcoming races for the Flanagan Cup and the Westmeath Examiner Cup produce a few future stars in both codes. Frankly, they are urgently required!