Monday 24 October 2016

Roche's Point: So this is how it feels to beat Meath

John Heslin
John Heslin

GERRY BUCKLEY had been keeping a lid on his emotions for most of that faintly surreal second-half comeback. He had a job to do: report on Westmeath's quest to do what no Westmeath team had ever done before ... slay the Meath nemesis in championship combat.

But as the fightback gathered steam, and Westmeath landed score upon score to eat into a deficit that had once stretched to ten points - and lucky at that - Gerry was fighting a losing battle with those increasingly frayed emotions.

With almost every point, this column would peer to the back of the press box and check on a man who doubles as Westmeath GAA historian and Westmeath's number one fan. With Kieran Martin's inspirational brace of carbon-copy fisted points, he was starting to believe the unbelievable. When John Heslin soloed through for that match-clinching goal, he was a volcano primed to erupt.

And when the final whistle sounded ... Vesuvius!

This column's glasses almost suffered collateral damage in the lava landslide. To say I was blindsided by Gerry's jump-and-slide as he careered under a barrier and grabbed me in a 'Westmeath-man-hug' would be an understatement.

With the benefit of hindsight, it was very naive defending on my part. I was left almost as wide open as the Westmeath rearguard in that chaotic first half.

Better tighten up my act for the Leinster final.


Doubtless, you've gathered from the above, I share the same county lineage as Gerry. In truth, when it comes to devotion to a long-suffering cause, I'm only in the ha'penny place ... only partly because of age; partly because my job-spec means an occasional dipping in and out of Westmeath's fixture list; partly because I must maintain a veneer of neutrality; but mostly because I wouldn't come remotely close to being the unashamed fanatic that Gerry Buckley is.

Every county has them. They suffer. They bleed. They make admissions such as Gerry did last week, that he would "genuinely die happy" if Westmeath could beat Meath just the once.

And then, when it actually happens, they dance a jig up and down the press box, mystified stewards wondering if they should call the PA man to urgently announce 'Plan B!'

This year's provincial football championships have, for the most part, served up a diet of tepid, predictable fare. Sligo (against Roscommon) and now Westmeath (against Meath) have shaken us all from our stupor. Sometimes, just sometimes, shocks do happen.

Now, the flip side of Westmeath's remarkable transformation from Junior B defenders to Leinster pretenders is that this was every bit as much a story about Meath. The Meath teams of old - gnarled, battle-hardened, spiky, cynical when needs must - would never have allowed such a collapse to reach its deadly denouement. They would have survived, somehow.

Meath, right now, seem to have lost that once-intrinsic gene in their DNA. It will be a hard ask for Mick O'Dowd to rescue this summer - maybe even his tenure - given yesterday morning's doomsday qualifier draw of a trip to Tyrone.

By the same token, it probably looks an impossible ask for Westmeath to build on yesterday's historic result.

Under Jim Gavin, Dublin have won six of their eight Leinster SFC (mis)matches by a minimum of 16 points. This summer they have tanked Longford by 27 points and now Kildare by 19. The average is 23 and, so the sceptics will argue, Westmeath will be lucky to dip below that mark.

For the team itself, it will be a difficult task coming down from the euphoria of Sunday, then dealing with the psychology of facing a supposedly invincible foe. They must believe; they must try and stay competitive for as long as is humanly possible. On Sunday week, in terms of the collective performance, they will need eight Kieran Martins and seven John Heslins.

Yet, what happened on June 28, 2015 can never be taken away from these players and especially from people like Gerry Buckley.

He has been watching Westmeath lose to Meath in the championship for half a century, ever since 1965. We contacted him last week and he obligingly revisited the years of trauma and near-misses - dating back long before Ollie Murphy's equalising dagger in 2001 or Dessie Dolan's fateful free in 2003.

"We had oodles of possession but couldn't put them away," he winced, recalling how Westmeath lost by a point to Meath in '73, the day before he started his Leaving Cert.


Five years before that, Meath won by four points but only after a Liam Jackson piledriver was disallowed despite being "pulled from behind the net" by Meath 'keeper Seán McCormack. "I remember my father, Lord have mercy, beside me in the stand in Croke Park going absolutely ballistic," said Gerry. "And the ref was booed at half-time, and the umpire was booed - because it was a definite goal.

"We lost it by four, so you could argue … one of those things. Forty-seven years later, and I have a perfectly clear vision of it."

Speaking of vision, the glasses survived. Just about!


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