Wednesday 17 January 2018

Cribbin joy after 'miracle' Croker comeback for Westmeath

Westmeath pull off shock of Championship to stun Meath

28 June 2015; Westmeath's John Heslin, right, and Dennis Glennon celebrate following their side's victory. Leinster GAA Football Senior Championship, Semi-Final, Westmeath v Meath. Croke Park
28 June 2015; Westmeath's John Heslin, right, and Dennis Glennon celebrate following their side's victory. Leinster GAA Football Senior Championship, Semi-Final, Westmeath v Meath. Croke Park
Kieran Martin, Westmeath, scores his side's first goal despite the efforts of Padraic Harnan, Meath.

FROM any perspective, this was a truly wondrous result.

Take, as many inevitably will, the historical angle.

Never, prior to yesterday, had Westmeath beaten Meath in the senior Championship, a run of oppression that, according to the match programme, ran to 23 games.

In the GAA, where history and tradition are such prevailing forces, that's a lot of baggage.

Narrow the parameters of analysis and view Westmeath's 3-19 to 2-18 victory through the prism of the team's respective standing in football's grand order.

True, they both played in Division 2 of this year's Allianz League.

But Meath were going for a fourth Leinster final on the trot.

The slackness of their opening round win over Wicklow was explainable largely by their inexperience and a spate of inconvenient injuries and most felt they could make ground on Dublin in the inevitable provincial final in which they'd meet.


Westmeath, meanwhile, were relegated for a second year on the spin, losing five games, the most chastising of which was an 11-point loss to Meath in Navan.

Their manager, Tom Cribbin, publicly criticised some of his players once their demotion was assured.

Indeed, Westmeath were nearly beaten by Wexford just three weeks ago.

But perhaps the most remarkable vantage point from which to appraise this result is in the microcosm of the match itself.

Forget history. Forget form.

Westmeath were 10 points down here.

Meath's pacey inside men were going to town and we began to surmise that maybe all this speed and all this youth and the experience gained by Mick O'Dowd's policy would put Meath back to within swinging distance of Dublin again.

"It's a miracle," reflected Cribbin, again saying what everyone else was thinking.

"After 10 or 12 minutes, I was starting to question (whether the game was effectively over).

"After the first 15, I was worried."

With just cause.

His team scored a single point in the first 20 minutes.

When Brian McMahon smashed a couple of goals within a minute of one another in the 28th minute, it looked as though Westmeath's goose was well done.

With 20 minutes to play, Meath were nine up.

Then, they melted.

O'Dowd's team were wiped in the middle of the pitch, a fact he tried to correct with substitutions and acknowledged afterwards.

Thus, McMahon, Eamon Wallace and Stephen Bray weren't having those lovely balls popped in front of them they made so much hay with in the first half.

And at the back, Meath's young defence came under more and more pressure.

Westmeath, energised by two extraordinary individual performances by Kieran Martin and John Heslin, scored 2-8 to a single point over the closing, dramatic gallop.

"Every team gets it's purple patch and Kieran is very difficult to stop," Cribbin surmrised.

"When John Heslin hit form from frees, every team gets their purple patch and we just got it at the right time and probably the second goal came at the right time."

"We knew they have fierce character and getting them to gel as a unit was the whole secret to making it happen.

"We were a bit at sea in the first half there.

"No matter what way you were going to approach it, there was always going to be a huge amount of pressure on us."

Heslin, a fantastically skilled footballer, produced an outrageous performance, featuring almost every style of kick from a variety of distances and angles, off both feet and under the pressure of his county's downtrodden history.

Yet his goal, in the first minute of injury time and with Westmeath just a point up, was beautifully dispached.

More poignantly, it was also the score that confirmed to stunned attendees in Croke Park yesterday that Westmeath had exorcised their Meath's ghosts.

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