For the first time since 1999, Westmeath were crowned All-Ireland minor 'B' hurling champions in Navan last Saturday afternoon, when an improved performance from the semi-final win over Meath enabled Pat O'Brien's charges to eke out a deserved three-point win over Kildare in an entertaining final.
Indeed, the O'Brien home in Castletown-Geoghegan is likely to have been a very happy place last weekend with the manager's son, Niall turning in a man-of-the-match performance. The young corner-forward chipped in with a great personal haul of 2-7, including two priceless goals in the first-half, during which a determined Lilywhite outfit looked more than a match for the pre-match favourites. Ironically, a wild pull from the same player in the last minute of normal time in the first half had Westmeath hearts fluttering in the sizeable and enthusiastic crowd. However, referee Fergus Smyth, who officiated very well in the absence of designated whistler Seán Whelan, issued just a yellow card.
The lads in maroon and white were undoubtedly the better team in the second half, with the hitherto-anonymous Aonghus Clarke much more prominent when moved outfield from his original full-forward role. A late Kildare rally failed to bring the game to extra-time, mainly due to heroic Westmeath defending, where the winners' central spine of Niall Kelly, Tommy Doyle and Anthony Price all excelled.
The vagaries of the Irish weather are such that the glorious sunshine of the previous day had been replaced by heavy drizzle by the time of the throw-in in Páirc Tailteann, making underfoot conditions tricky for both sets of players. Kildare's Conor Kenny already looked a handful at centre half-forward by the time he slotted over a third-minute free. Niall Kelly soon brought off the first of many fine saves, keeping out Gerry Keegan's rasper after a long solo, at the expense of a '65'. Shortly afterwards, Niall O'Brien opened his account from a 60-metre free. Both sides missed chances before O'Brien doubled his tally, this time from a straightforward free after Neal Kirby was fouled. With exactly ten minutes elapsed, Kildare equalised when Mark Delaney converted a 35-metre free. Within a minute, Niall O'Brien struck for the first of his two goals when he did well to field David Higgins' delivery before batting the ball intuitively past Cormac Gallagher for a tonic score.
The young men in all-white proceeded to take control, firing over five unanswered points between the 16th and 20th minutes, via Fergal Conway (two terrific individual scores), Jonathan Byrne (from a '65',), Mark Delaney (free) and Conor Kenny. However, Westmeath's response was impressive. A Niall O'Brien free from around 50 metres preceded a goal chance for Aonghus Clarke, but Cormac Gallagher was up to the task to prevent a score. Anthony Price slotted over a free from all of 80 metres, before an all-Castletown-Geoghegan move with Neal Kirby's pass being touched on by Aonghus Clarke for Niall O'Brien to bury the sliotar in the Kildare net. The losers garnered the last score of the half in added-time, Jonathan Byrne dissecting the posts from a '65'. At the break, the scoreboard read: Westmeath 2-4 Kildare 0-8.
Within 20 seconds of the restart, Niall O'Brien had the chance to complete a hat-trick when Enda Kincaid (Southern Gaels/Fr Dalton's) was fouled in the large parallelogram, with half-time sub Seán Gainey earning a yellow card, but O'Brien blasted the penalty over rather than under the bar. However, a very determined Kildare outfit were level by the sixth minute, courtesy of points from Mark Delaney (free) Gerry Keegan and Dean Farrell. Niall Kelly then had to advance smartly to thwart Conor " Hehir as he tried to kick the sliotar to the net.
Westmeath's superior class began to show at this juncture and they rattled off seven points without reply between the tenth and 24th minutes. A Niall O'Brien free was quickly followed by a great score from Anthony Price (remarkably the Lake County's first point from play with almost three-quarters-of-an-hour played). A one-two from a quickly-taken sideline cut by Aonghus Clarke to David Higgins resulted in the former opening his account. Clarke doubled his tally at the midpoint of the second half and Anthony Price soon added his third point of the hour, this time from a '65'.
All seven Westmeath defenders who were used had their moments throughout the game and Diarmuid Garvin's brave block on Fergal Conway epitomised a Lake County spirit which was lacking by times in the penultimate round. Mark Delaney hit the upright from a scoreable free for the Lilywhites. Kildare netminder Cormac Gallagher scooped away a low-trajectory free from Anthony Price. The winners wrapped up their account with a brace of points from Niall O'Brien, the first from a very difficult free and the second being his only point from play (when teed up by a great crossfield pass from Aonghus Clarke). A seven-point lead looked comfortable for the lads in maroon and white with just six minutes of normal time remaining, but Kildare threw everything at the winners' rearguard in the closing stages. A point from a long-range free from powerful centre half-back Jonathan Byrne preceded an opportunist goal by Kevin Connor, who pounced when Niall Kelly could only bat out Mark Delaney's shot. Dean McDermott and Tommy Doyle produced heroic moments for Westmeath as the minutes ticked away, with Declan Flaherty shooting just wide of the target in the last action of an enthralling contest. Moments later, Aaron Craig was presented with the trophy by Seamus Howlin, chairman of the Leinster Council of the GAA.
With creditable displays both as a combined Westmeath schools side and in the provincial championship 'proper' prior to this overdue win in the secondary inter-county competition, this has been a promising year at minor level for Lake County hurling. The trick now is to build on this promise. That won't be easy and will require very hard work and dedication from all concerned.
WESTMEATH: Niall Kelly; Tommy Gallagher, Tommy Doyle, Diarmuid Garvin; Kelvin Reilly, Anthony Price (0-3, 1f, 0-1 '65'), Paddy Layde; Aaron Craig (capt), Shane Fagan; Enda Kincaid, Davy Gavin, David Higgins; Niall O'Brien (2-7, 0-5f, 0-1pen), Aonghus Clarke (0-2), Neal Kirby. Subs: Joey Boyle (for Gavin, 41 mins), Dean McDermott (for Layde, 55).
KILDARE: Cormac Gallagher (capt); Shane O'Flynn, Liam McDonagh, Kevin Whelan; Mark Carter, Jonathan Byrne (0-3, 1f, 0-2 '65's), Dean Farrell (0-1); Gavin Farrell, Fergal Conway (0-2); Mark Delaney (0-3, 3f), Conor Kenny (0-2, 1f), Gerry Keegan (0-1); Conor " Hehir, Kevin Connor (1-0), Declan Flaherty. Subs: Seán Gainey (for O'Flynn, h-t).
REFEREE: Fergus Smyth (Meath).