Both Westmeath and Louth eye great chance to claim Leinster final spot

Story by Kieran Galvin

Wednesday, 23rd June, 2010 5:36pm

Westmeath and Louth are in a position that few could have predicted earlier in the season and both teams will now really fancy their chances of booking a place in the Leinster final.

For which ever county comes through, it will be a quite rare appearance in a Leinster senior championship decider. Westmeath are bidding to reach their fourth ever Leinster final (1931, 1949 and 2004 being their previous appearances), while Louth are hoping to end a 50-year wait to play in a provincial final showpiece.

When the draw for this year's Leinster championship was made, Westmeath would have been given a decent chance of overcoming Wicklow. But that was before a disastrous National League Division 2 campaign which saw the Lake men lose all seven matches, a campaign which culminated in the resignation of manager Brendan Hackett following an outbreak of player unrest. This led to the appointment of Pat Flanagan and, just over six weeks later, Westmeath edged out Wicklow by the narrowest of margins.

But whatever about Westmeath defeating Wicklow, most pundits saw Kildare as hot favourites to emerge from this side of the draw. Indeed, many people saw Kildare as the team most likely to end Dublin's reign as Leinster champions. Even though their league performances this year were quite disappointing, many observers felt they were keeping their powder dry for the championship.

As things turned out, Louth paid scant regard to the script that most people had been forecasting. Louth defeated Longford in the opening round but, in what was generally regarded as a poor game, the men from the Wee County were not particularly impressive in recording that 1-11 to 1-7 victory. So very few people gave them much of a chance against Kildare. However, Louth produced an excellent display to shock the Lilywhites, scoring an impressive total of 1-22 in the process.

If Louth hit the heights they reached against Kildare, Westmeath will face a very difficult challenge. But can Louth reach that level of performance in two successive games?

Louth have something of a track record of playing the role of party-poopers and producing the occasional impressive performance. But their difficulty has been putting two big displays back to back, something that they will hope to rectify on Sunday.

In 1991, they defeated Mick O'Dwyer's Kildare, an outfit of which much was expected after they reached that year's National League final. They repeated the dose against another fancied Kildare team this year.

And this writer can remember Louth bursting Westmeath's bubble back in 1994 in a Leinster championship match which drew a huge crowd to Páirc Chiaráin, Athlone. Westmeath had defeated then All-Ireland champions Derry in a National League quarter-final and they went on to produce a creditable display in the league semi-final against Meath in Croke Park. And so hopes were high of a good run in the Leinster championship. However, Louth had other ideas and they claimed a narrow but deserved win on the day (0-13 to 1-9). An abiding memory of that game was the exhibition of point taking by Louth's attacking aces Stefan White and Colin Kelly.

Selection dilemmas

Looking back to Westmeath's clash with Wicklow, there was understandably a lot of discussion about the decision to deploy Denis Glennon in a deep role, with Paul Greville and Martin Flanagan forming a two man full-forward line. Flanagan caused the Wicklow defence huge problems, with one magnificent catch among a phalanx of players, which led to a point for Doran Harte, just one example of what he's capable of. However, Westmeath must deliver better quality ball to Flanagan. If one looks at the way Kerry utilise Kieran Donaghy, they send diagonal passes in his direction which are difficult for the opposing defence to deal with. Just driving high ball in the direction of Flanagan will make things easier for the Louth defence.

Greville and Flanagan are an unusual two man inside line as neither player has much pace. Greville's main asset is his ability to kick points off his left foot. On Sunday, Westmeath may need to alternate their use of the two man full-forward line and, if Denis Glennon is given a spell as an inside forward, his pace could really test the Louth defence.

Flanagan has emerged as an doubt for Sunday because of an ankle injury and he didn't feature in either of the recent challenge matches against Longford or Limerick. Having missed out on Westmeath's Leinster title breakthrough in 2004, this year could well be his last chance to play in a senior provincial final, and it would be a major pity if such a talented player misses out on that honour.

Louth's perceived weakness is their defence and although they answered most of the questions asked of them against Kildare, they still conceded 1-16.

Louth's main strengths are their midfield pairing of Paddy Keenan and Brian White, and the scoring ability in their forward line. Given Louth's formidable midfield pairing, Pat Flanagan will be expected to again crowd the middle third of the field on Sunday.

Paul Bannon found it difficult to make an impact at midfield for long spells against Wicklow, but he continued to toil tirelessly as always and he kicked an excellent point in the second half. However, much will depend on David Duffy on Sunday and Westmeath will need the Shandonagh man to deliver on his undoubted potential.

Nowadays the middle battle is not simply a duel between the two midfielders. It also involves the half-backs and half-forwards and the winning of the so-called 'dirty ball' in the middle third will be just as important as any spectacular fetches.

Given the welcome competition for places now in the Westmeath squad, it's certainly not easy to predict the likely Westmeath line-up on Sunday. The defence is likely to be very similar to the last day, and starting John Keane would be a 'big call' considering that he hasn't played any competitive inter-county football this season.

Donal O'Donoghue had a very impressive first half against Wicklow when his ability to read the play snuffed out danger on several occasions. However, he was put under more pressure in the second half and was guilty of a few fouls which ultimately led to a yellow card. And reports suggest the Mullingar Shamrocks man was under pressure in the two recent challenge matches.

Shane Lennon produced an excellent display at full-forward against Kildare and Louth will be looking to isolate Lennon against O'Donoghue, if the latter is selected at full-back again. Indeed, Lennon and tricky corner-forward Colm Judge scored eight points between them against Kildare, and they will be a big threat to the Westmeath rearguard on Sunday. Andy McDonnell was a revelation at wing-forward against Kildare, while Mark Brennan and JP Rooney are also capable performers. In addition, Louth's success rate from frees in the quarter-final means the Westmeath defence will have to be particularly disciplined with their tackling.

The Westmeath half-back line of Michael Ennis, Kieran Martin and Doran Harte is likely to remain unchanged. The return of Derek Heavin provides Westmeath with a valuable option in this sector, even though the Castledaly man performed well at wing-forward in last weekend's challenge match against Limerick and scored three points.

Ger Egan made a terrific impression when introduced as a substitute against Wicklow and the 2009 county minor will be pushing for a starting place on Sunday. And even if he isn't started, he could well prove a useful sub again on Sunday.

Conor Lynam, Paul Greville, Martin Flanagan (if fit) and Denis Glennon are all likely to start in attack on Saturday. Alan Gaughan struggled to make an impression against Wicklow, and Dessie Dolan's craft and experience would be a big addition from the start.

Louth's quarter-final display against Kildare means Westmeath will have been forewarned about the capabilities of Peter Fitzpatrick's side. For a team managed by Kieran McGeeney, Kildare's defensive play and tackling against Louth was way below the standard expected. Westmeath are not likely to be as accommodating on Sunday.

It could be argued that there is no clear favourite in Sunday's game. Louth haven't reached a Leinster final since 1960 and they are likely to see Sunday's game as their best opportunity to reach a provincial decider in a long time. In a way, it's similar to the situation Westmeath faced when they took on Wexford in the 2004 semi-final.

With no championship meetings between the teams for the past nine years, it's difficulty to assess the merits of the two teams. Louth will be very determined to end their long wait for a Leinster final appearance, but despite the woeful results Westmeath have endured in 2009 and 2010, the Lake County has an edge over Louth in terms of big match experience.

With the Dublin v Meath match on first, it's unlikely the hordes of Dubs fans will remain on to watch Westmeath v Louth, which will probably lead to a somewhat strange atmosphere for the second game. However, Westmeath fans won't be bothered if their team has sealed a place in the Leinster final for the fourth time, a feat which is well within their capabilities.