Lakemen looking for fresh start
Flanagan can't forget 'worst day' ahead of Dublin clashFOR the first time in over 18 months, Westmeath senior footballers will lock swords with Dublin this coming Sunday.
The midlanders have compelling reason to look forward to this O'Byrne Cup opener at Mullingar rather than dwelling on the past, because that most recent 'competitive' encounter -- the 2009 Leinster SFC semi-final -- ended in a 27-point rout.
You read that correctly: 4-26 to 0-11. Car crash television dressed up as sport.
"I think the worst day in my life was when Dublin hammered us in the semi-final," recalled Pat Flanagan, then a Westmeath selector, now manager, in a pre-Christmas interview with the Westmeath Examiner.
Speaking to the Evening Herald yesterday, he tempered that assessment only marginally. "It was definitely the worst day of my sporting life!" he ruefully remarked.
"Basically you try and put those days behind you and move on. The whole idea of next Sunday is building a squad again for the coming year.
"We were hugely disappointed because of the (Leinster semi-final) loss to Louth last year; I thought we didn't perform to the best of our ability on the day and then Louth went on and probably should have won Leinster.
"Even though we are short a number of players, we are looking to find some players to add to what we had last year."
Flanagan's look-to-the-future mantra makes eminent managerial sense.
Westmeath may have moved down another league division -- into the lowly third flight -- since the annus horribilis that was 2009, but they have also moved on.
Tomas ó Flatharta stepped down after that ill-fated campaign; then Brendan Hackett was chosen (ahead of Flanagan) only to oversee a literally pointless league that culminated in a player-heave against him.
Enter Flanagan as interim manager.
With the championship fast approaching, he felt a demoralised squad needed experience and so recalled a handful of veterans who had made themselves unavailable to the previous incumbent.
The Clara native steadied the ship to an extent, ending Westmeath's losing streak with a Leinster quarter-final win over Wicklow ... but now that he's installed on a permanent basis, Flanagan is adamant that he won't be issuing any 11th-hour SOS calls come next April or May.
"This year is completely different. You are starting out afresh. Whatever happens will be totally under your control," he explains. "The whole idea of getting a squad together is to build them as a unit from far away out from the championship. We are looking to get everybody in as soon as possible."
Easier said than done in early January, mind you. A couple of players are currently on holidays, others have picked up injuries, while an even bigger number are college-tied and thus ineligible for the O'Byrne Cup.
No wonder, then, that Flanagan believes it's time to readjust the closed-season concept. Last Sunday, his team edged out Longford by a point in a Mullingar challenge but many of those players will now revert to their colleges, with some also immersed in exams.
"I honestly believe there should be some different set-up or plan -- that you can get a squad together -- because you won't feel the sixth of February coming around when you have your first league match. After Sunday's game, that will be the first time we see a full squad again," he lamented.
His solution? Move the two-month training moratorium back to October/ November or even a month earlier, freeing up pre-Christmas for the O'Byrne Cup. Then, come January, inter-county managers could have a full month of league preparation with all their college players available.
Instead, Flanagan predicts it will be "difficult to even put a panel together" for Sunday's Cusack Park clash.
Dublin may boast a much bigger pick but, with an absentee list of 24 and counting, are liable to be equally if not more depleted -- to the relief, no doubt, of any Westmeath pessimists still scarred by that June '09 capitulation.
Flanagan rationalises that defeat on the grounds that Westmeath were carrying injuries all year and were low on confidence after suffering seven straight Division One defeats.
"That Dublin team had the ability to absolutely destroy a team -- which they did," he reflects. "When your confidence is down and fitness levels are possibly not what they should be, you pay the price against the best teams."
He compares that scenario with the circumstances of Sunday's low-key rematch as "like chalk and cheese". Safe to surmise, then, that he's hoping for an entirely different result too!