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Saturday 16 December 2017

Cribbin counts on the belief in squad ahead of clash with Faithful

Westmeath manager Tom Cribbin. Photo: Sportsfile
Westmeath manager Tom Cribbin. Photo: Sportsfile

Two summers running, Tom Cribbin has pitted his Westmeath 'David' against Jim Gavin's Sky Blue 'Goliath' … but it's another match against a heavyweight All-Ireland contender that he pinpoints as a potential watershed for his team.

Last year's Croke Park qualifier against Mayo. Compared to his first two campaigns, Cribbin believes there is "a lot more confidence" coursing through his squad as Westmeath prepare for a Leinster SFC derby date with Offaly this Sunday.

This has been manifested in their emphatic march to the Division 4 title in April. But where did that surging belief come from in the first place?

Cribbin agrees that it stems from their last two championships, when they reached consecutive Leinster SFC finals against Dublin. But, while they hung in resolutely in both first halves, the maroon dam couldn't hold and they were ultimately submerged by margins of 13 and 15 points.

That's why he identifies "last year's performance - not the second half against Dublin but the next day against Mayo. To not have a great first half and then go out and really perform well in the second half. They probably came off, after that, very, very disappointed … starting to realise, 'Jesus, lads, we really could have probably beaten them.'

Top team

"And I think that was the first time that really showed them, they could have beaten a top team in championship, in Croke Park. And they've a different approach to the thing now. They're starting to believe, 'Yeah, it's okay for Westmeath to be there and we are capable of performing against these teams.'"

First up, however, they must perform against Offaly.

"Everyone knows that, in Tullamore, that's going to be a dogfight - and we're not looking any further than that," he stresses.

"But we still believe we're going in the right direction, and if we play to our full potential that we've every chance of winning it."

The carrot for the winners is a semi-final against the Dubs on June 25. Little wonder, then, that everyone else has dismissed the prospect of Westmeath reaching a third consecutive provincial final for the first time ever.

But Cribbin isn't bothered by talk of a far tougher draw for the very reason that he's not thinking of anyone bar Offaly right now.

"O'Connor Park is a super pitch and hopefully we get a dry day, because I know it will definitely suit us down to the ground. I think it will suit Offaly as well," he surmises.

"But, look, we don't care. If we were to win that match and get back to Croke Park to play a semi-final against Dublin, we'd be happy to go and see how much have we improved? Where are we really going here?"

The league was hugely encouraging not just for the eventual outcome - top of the basement division class - but for the unexpected depth of options it revealed.

Now that promotion is in the can, however, Cribbin can admit that anything else would have been a calamity.

"I knew we needed to get back up because, Jesus, if you lose the first year in Division 4, it can become a dogfight; it can become a hard place to get out of," he concedes.

"It's hard to attract lads into the panel, and trying to raise funds, and the whole thing that comes with running a set-up becomes very difficult.

"So we had to bounce back. It would be impossible to get them up for any kind of championship if we didn't get out of Division 4. So the whole championship depended on getting out of it.

"And, like, we got a run of luck … we had a few minor injuries but we've no major injuries this year. Our panel is a lot stronger. A few decent players rejoined us. You didn't have to see was Mark McCallon good enough - you knew Mark McCallon was going to fight for a first 15 place. You knew Denis Glennon was going to fight for a first 15 place, or you'd have fierce confidence bringing him on.

"It gave us strength in depth. And then, out of the woodwork, came Tommy McDaniel, Kelvin Reilly, Alan Stone, Noel Mulligan, to put serious pressure on other lads on the panel."

Pressure

Revelling in that pressure, all spring, was a certain John Heslin. The St Loman's man finished as the Allianz League's top scorer with 3-60 from eight games - a massive 18 points clear of Kerry's Paul Geaney in second place.

"He's exceptional at the moment," his manager purrs. "He's 24 years of age. Like, Division 4 or no Division 4, he is one of the top forwards in the country. Without a shadow of a doubt.

"He has improved so much in the last couple of years. He always had the talent; he's starting to mature and develop. He's a lot stronger now. He's able to deal with the attention and abuse that he's getting. So, it's been a huge learning curve for him and I've no doubt John is a top player."

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