Dublin will be the ultimate test for ironman Cribbin
'Everyone will think I'm mad but I believe on a given day we could do it' - Cribbin
TOM CRIBBIN had just finished the New York Marathon, only minutes beforehand, when Westmeath county board chairman Seán Sheridan phoned from across the Atlantic and popped the question … will you take the job?
It was only his second marathon and the Kildare man was in "serious pain", so much so that he was promising never to do a third one. "And I said yes before…" he trails off.
Before he had time to think straight? Or concoct a plausible excuse? Or remind himself that Westmeath had played 12 competitive matches in 2014 and lost the lost?
Of course he doesn't say any of the above. What Cribbin did was leap straight back into his third county management gig, and the rest is history. Literally.
Westmeath's Berlin Wall has come tumbling down: their eternal subjugation by Meath is finally over. And now, against the unlikeliest backdrop of back-to-back relegations, the county is gearing up for only its fourth ever Leinster senior football final.
The small matter of Dublin awaits … back to that later.
First we'll rewind to early November, a certain former Laois and Offaly manager in the Big Apple. By then, Westmeath had been embroiled in a protracted managerial saga mired in controversy: club delegates had already voted out Paul Bealin after one season and subsequently rejected the selection committee's next candidate, Peter Leahy.
Then came the approach to Cribbin. He was New York-bound and suggested talking on his return. It all just happened a little quicker than expected …
CRIBBIN is not a marathon maniac but, at 52, is something of a fitness freak. Ironman is his thing: you run a marathon, cycle 180km and swim 3.8km.
"It's all about endurance, getting through an event," he explains. "A marathon you race it. At my age you would never be able to race an Ironman hard. It's about trying to stay on your feet and keep going for 12 hours."
So you're an obsessive type? "A little bit," he admits. But now he doesn't have the time "and I miss it."
That's what happens when you head up a successful meat business and chain of butcher shops (the Rathangan-based Butcher's Block) and then agree to take on another time-consuming project: you can't train for Ironmans when you've just committed to training Westmeath out of last year's horrific slump.
They lost their first O'Byrne Cup tie - at home to Meath - after which Cribbin lamented that Westmeath "didn't have the confidence to even kick a 14-yard free"; that some of them were "nearly nervous walking down the street now with a Westmeath bag".
This was the legacy of a losing streak dating back to a first round championship win over Carlow in May, 2013. The Meath defeat had made it 15 setbacks on the spin.
But then three days later came deliverance: they squeezed past DCU by 3-11 to 2-13 for the county's first competitive win in 598 days.
Cribbin has just been asked about the difficulty of keeping things grounded in the camp post-Meath: he instantly harks back to that Wednesday night in Kinnegad instead.
"Players are very grounded. A lot of them didn't carry the (Meath) baggage and didn't feel the weight of that. The weight of the 600 days was a lot heavier. Seriously.
"Early in the year, the first few matches in the O'Byrne Cup, everyone was talking about 600 days and that actually related to our team.
"That second match was probably the most passionate I've seen any team play. I have never seen anything like the effort and the honesty. A lot of young players played really well and a few senior players played exceptionally well - and it was blood and guts.
"We didn't know each other - I was playing them in positions that I didn't have a clue with a lot of them - and that performance told me mountains about them.
"And that's why I had so much confidence in them. What they gave that night just to break that (duck), just to get over that ... the relief. We didn't have that pressure coming into the Meath game, didn't feel like it anyway."
PRESSURE would manifest itself in other ways first. Westmeath won their last O'Byrne Cup match and two of their first three outings in Division Two, painting a picture of relatively swift renewal.
But then the wheels came off and they lost four league fixtures on the bounce - by margins of 11, 13, five and seven. Their Division Three destiny was sealed by a home defeat to Roscommon and, soon after the final whistle, local radio station Midlands 103 caught up with Cribbin.
The interview quickly went viral, laying bare a manager's utter frustration as he complained about big players "who should be standing up and leading, f***ing lay down and that's the trouble with this team", adding: "We might have to go without a clatter of these players."
Looking back, three months and three championship wins later, Cribbin reflects: "There was nothing planned. I just speak my mind the whole time, off the cuff. That's the way I am. I'm very passionate, the lads know that. I should have said it to the players first. Hands up. They know that. I went in and apologised to them."
The matter was cleared up at a training camp in Mayo soon after.
"It was a private meeting we needed to have," says Cribbin.
"I promised them I'd try and never let it happen again, but I couldn't guarantee them! Because if I get frustrated or if I feel we've under-performed, if someone gets me before someone cools me down, I'm liable to blow a gasket again. That's just the way I am - I hate under-performing, as we all do.
"But, at the same time, I wasn't afraid to admit I was wrong and hold my hand up and say 'Yeah, I should have dealt with it in-house and dealt with it better'."
He "genuinely" doesn't believe his radio rebuke kickstarted Westmeath's revival.
"The lads know my form before that," he says. "I've told them what our goal was all year - to get to the Leinster final, and see what we can do. And I convinced them that we could beat Meath from the start of the year."
Now they're there. And now it gets scary.
"At the start of the year, I told them all Dublin were 10-12 points better than any team in Leinster. And our goal was to get to the Leinster final and see how much we've improved and if we can try and cause an upset.
"Yeah, everyone will think I'm mad but I believe on a given day we could do it. I genuinely believe that."
It's a long, long way from New York to here.
Tom talks about Royal hexes and how to halt Dubs
LEAGUE RELEGATION ...
"I made no secret about it and the players knew that we under-performed. Full stop. We under-performed. They were as much frustrated as me and it was probably that we couldn't come up with the answer why we were under-performing. It wasn't about any individuals, even though it sounded like that, but I couldn't come up with the answer at the time. We think we have a far better understanding now, and it was about having the players in the right positions."
THAT ROYAL COMEBACK ...
"We always believed, I suppose because of the last two games (against Louth and Wexford) where we always finished strong. You get that confidence out of it ... you can't ever use it as an excuse that maybe we were unfit, because we finished strong and we've been getting goals. That's the one thing that gives you massive confidence. We've been creating four to five goal chances in every game and we've been taking three or four."
MEATH IN PERSPECTIVE ...
"There are a few lads that got excited about it but not the team. A lot of it too was we felt for them because of the tragedy (the terrorist killing of Lorna Carty, mother of Meath panellist Simon, in Tunisia). The players were very much aware of that and we talked about it … that there's a young lad's parents who went out for his dad to recover (from heart surgery) and they are coming home without the mother.
"This is a game of football, please God we can win it; if we don't, no one is going to die."
SORTING HIS DEFENCE ...
"We are getting goals, we are getting loads of scores. Yeah, we're conceding too much. We've tried to address that majorly in the last couple of weeks. On the day it could really backfire; but if we didn't have a go at doing something about it, there's one thing for certain - we would have got hammered. Every Division One team playing them (Dublin) plays a defensive game, so we're not going to be stupid and go out and not have a defensive game-plan for them."
SKY BLUE BENCHMARK ...
"Dublin are a super class team. What can you say about them? They're bringing the whole thing to a different level. That's what happens in sport ... one team sets the standards, and if you want to get up to them you have to follow, instead of making excuses and everything."