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Monday 26 September 2016

Westmeath are long odds for a reason ... don't expect them to punish Mayo's multiple issues

Westmeath’s Ger Egan. Photo by Eóin Noonan/Sportsfile
Westmeath’s Ger Egan. Photo by Eóin Noonan/Sportsfile

A curious stat that tells you almost everything you need to know about people's perception of Westmeath.

At the outset of the championship, Boylesports were quoting you 500/1 on the (admittedly outlandish) prospect that Ger Egan would be lifting Sam Maguire in September.

Since then, a team demoted to Division 4 has recovered, qualified for a second consecutive Leinster final, frustrated the supposedly invincible Dubs for 35 minutes, and now remains among the last ten championship survivors.

And their All-Ireland odds are? Unchanged, at 500/1.

You don't have to be a bookie to know that won't happen, but are the same odds-makers or the general public, for that matter, being gratuitously dismissive in their assessment of this evening's Round 4B qualifier against Mayo?

In truth, probably not.

It's not that Stephen Rochford's fallen kings of Connacht have been blazing a trail of destruction that used to be their June/July hallmark under James Horan or even the ill-starred double act of Pat Holmes and Noel Connelly.

By their own elevated standards, Mayo were abject against Galway. The qualifiers offered a shot at redemption and they're still alive, and even showed flickers of their old marauding pomp in the first half against Kildare.

But myriad issues remain, and we still can't be sure if they'll all be sorted in time for an onerous quarter-final test against either Tyrone or Dublin, presuming Westmeath don't do the unthinkable.

Victory was all but assured at half-time against the Lilies but, thereafter, their aerial subjugation at the kickout was alarming for a county noted for its ball-winning prowess.

With Ger Cafferkey gone for the summer, Kevin Keane's injury-enforced exit prompted the relocation, for a while, of Aidan O'Shea into a de facto full-back role as Kildare's big midfielders took it in turns to switch into target man mode.

Mention of O'Shea calls to mind the form and/or job-spec of several Mayo mainstays. The Breaffy man has been well off his barnstorming best, but there's also an onus on management to find a specific role that maximises his influence.

Kevin McLoughlin's suitability for 'sweeper' has also been questioned - he played the role somewhat better against Kildare, but that hasn't stopped calls for a job-swap with Keith Higgins.

As for Cillian O'Connor, it's clear he has more to offer and now is the time to show it.

For all that, the burgeoning influence of his younger brother Diarmuid and the leadership of Colm Boyle provide hope that there's still a kick in this team. Either way, it's hard to be sanguine about Westmeath's prospects when you consider (a) the memory of last year's post-Leinster final no-show against Fermanagh; (b) the loss of Ray Connellan, who robs them of a go-to man at kickouts; (c) the suspicion that they lack the athleticism and residual stamina to last 70 minutes in this elite company; and (d) the lack of depth in Tom Cribbin's squad, reflected in the queue of rookies introduced late on against Dublin.

Cribbin has shaken up his line-up with three changes and several positional switches; but he's operating off shallow resources and that is bound to show, sooner or later.

ODDS: Mayo 1/20 Draw 20/1 Westmeath 10/1 VERDICT: Mayo

SFC RD 4B QUALIFIER: MAYO v WESTMEATH, Croke Pk, Tonight 6.0, live Ss3

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