Past glories won't prevent Lakemen from sinking deeper
FROM the surreal to the ridiculous - a shorthand summation of our travels in search of Allianz Football League entertainment this past weekend.
The surreal part came in Castlebar, where an all-enveloping fog borrowed straight from some horror movie set saw a pitch literally disappear from view within minutes.
And the ridiculous part? That was watching how ridiculously easy it was for Meath to dismantle Westmeath without even having to play that well in the process.
True, the early league rounds are prone to throwing up form-lines (Kerry-Armagh spring to mind?) that cannot be trusted.
And yet, what makes Westmeath's current plight depressing -- especially if, like this reporter, you happen to hail from the place -- is the fact that Sunday in Cusack Park was entirely predictable. You could have penned the script beforehand; we even know of one local observer who forecast the exact 12-point margin.
The other depressing part is that Westmeath- Meath had become a genuine rivalry during the noughties. The stats may have still weighed almost totally in favour of Meath, who have never lost to their neighbours in SFC combat and who (in 2008) suffered their first league defeat by Westmeath in 35 years.
But while 'Meathies' revelled in reminding their 'Westie' upstarts that "you'll never beat the Royal", equally, they knew this was not a fixture to be taken lightly any more.
Privately, some of them might even admit it wasn't all down to Meath's legendary refusal to accept looming defeat; that Westmeath's own psychological frailties may have contributed to their failure to win three SFC games that were there for the taking. I refer to the 2001 Leinster quarter-final, the same year's drawn All-Ireland quarter-final, and another Leinster quarter-final in 2003.
That was then, this is now. It may seem perverse to talk of slippage in a county just promoted to Division Two, but that spring charge of 2011 was a blip masking a tailspin dating back to their last standout campaign, four years ago. Today, they are so far off the standard set in 2001, 2004, even '06 or '08, that you've got to wonder if they'll ever get back there.
For much of the noughties, with a hard core of talented, committed players possessed of serious underage pedigree, they punched above their weight.
Now, though, most of those players are in retirement. The best of them, Dessie Dolan, hasn't gone away but he is currently preparing for an All-Ireland club semi-final with Garrycastle this Saturday. Deep down, he knows this is his best and only chance of achieving national glory in the autumn of his career.
We interviewed Dolan last week, and his reflections on the wider inter-county landscape were poignant for anyone belonging to a mid-tier county with loftier aspirations.
"Honestly, I think there is only four or five teams probably can win the All-Ireland," he said. "The rest of us ... you'll get to maybe a quarter-final every now and then, but the reality is you're not going to get any further. That's the way it is."
Westmeath, almost certainly, won't qualify for another quarter-final any year soon.
They've been hit by emigration, an exodus to the county's hurling squad (a telling commentary) and the short-term loss of their Garrycastle contingent.
A more profound problem is that they're a small county that have lost their best generation and don't have the resources - either personnel or financial - to adequately replace them.
That's why confidence is draining away. And why you had more Meath fans than home diehards in Mullingar last Sunday.