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Saturday 20 October 2018

In the shade of Dub giant

Best of the rest in Leinster on guard against ambush

Westmeath may have to plan without John Heslin from the start of Saturday’s Leinster SFC encounter with Laois in O’Connor Park, Tullamore
Westmeath may have to plan without John Heslin from the start of Saturday’s Leinster SFC encounter with Laois in O’Connor Park, Tullamore

The last team bar Dublin to lift the Delaney Cup? Meath, albeit in outrageous controversy eight years ago.

The last team to push the Dubs to a single-digit margin in Leinster? Kildare, in last year's provincial final.

The last team to play back-to-back Leinster deciders against Jim Gavin's Sky Blue monolith? Westmeath.

So there you have it: Leinster's three most high-profile pretenders to a distant Delaney throne - Meath, Kildare and Westmeath. And yet all three could, in theory, fall at the first championship fence this weekend.

Meath have endured another of their now-trademark leagues, stuck in a hard place between top-flight promotion dreams and the doomsday scenario of demotion. And now, having lost several panellists in the interim, they face a tricky first day out away to a resurgent Longford.

At least Kildare were exposed to Division 1 this spring, whereas Carlow were in the fourth tier ... but they'll be separated by just one division next spring. By then, the labouring Lilywhites must hope that their current losing streak - 11 games on the spin in all competitions - has been consigned to history.

For all the optimism surrounding Carlow, Kildare are still 1/10 with the bookies to win in Tullamore on Sunday ... whereas Westmeath are now 6/4 underdogs against Laois, at the same venue tomorrow evening.

Given their respective recent SFC records, that might seem weird.

Given the level of upheaval that has beset Colin Kelly's squad in his first year - with key players lost to injury, the lure of travel and simply opting out - those odds sound far more on the money.

Talisman

Latest word from Mullingar suggests that John Heslin, their talisman, won't be fit to start against Laois because of his ongoing hip flexor injury - but might be able to contribute off the bench.

That, of itself, would seriously weaken Westmeath's hand. But then you trawl through the team that started against Dublin last June (and lost, calamitously, by 31 points) and consider all the players who won't be togging out in Tullamore.

They include 'keeper Darren Quinn (taking a year out); Kevin Maguire (gone travelling); Killian Daly (recently opted off because of work commitments); Frank Boyle (a likely six-month lay-off after neck surgery); James Dolan (a hammer-blow loss after he chose to spend his summer in the United States); Alan Gaughan (not involved); Paul Sharry (never returned after St Loman's lengthy club run).

The absentee list doesn't end there: prolific option Shane Dempsey didn't rejoin the panel this year, fellow forward Tommy McDaniel suffered serious facial injuries on recent club duty for Castleknock; and Paddy Holloway is still recovering from last year's cruciate tear.

It leaves resources badly stretched, especially in defence, and places a huge leadership burden on Ger Egan and Kevin Martin - especially if Heslin's involvement is limited.

Into this uncertain mix you could throw last weekend's club cameo appearance of Luke Loughlin (such an impressive 'rediscovery' this season) for The Downs against Athlone, a development that had the local rumour mill in overdrive for a few days, wrongly as it turned out. Yet, on Tuesday, Kelly delivered a bullish update on the Westmeath GAA website.

"I have every confidence in the squad and the players will not be found wanting for effort," the former Louth boss declared.

Nor has effort been lacking from Kildare this year. Trouble is, Cian O'Neill's men simply can't buy a win.

Starting with last July's Leinster final (a performance that hinted at better times) the Lilies have lost two championship outings (the next game, a qualifier, to Armagh); two O'Byrne Cup ties; and all seven league contests on their shortlived return to Division 1.

At least the injury clouds are lifting: O'Neill has a clean bill of health for Sunday, countering fears over key midfielder Kevin Feely (calf) and sharpshooter Neil Flynn (hamstring).

Given Flynn's recent hamstring history, however, it's debatable whether he'll be thrown straight back into the team with Kerry native Eanna O'Connor (son of Jack) in contention for a championship debut. Kildare's losing streak, coupled with the difficulty of breaching the defensive wall of a Carlow team on the rise, has fostered plenty of unease about this fixture, albeit they remain warm favourites.

Glennon Brothers Pearse Park looks a more likely ambush venue, as Longford seek to build on a vibrant league (just missing promotion from Division 3) and home advantage.

Crisis

It's all a far cry from the salad days under Seán Boylan but, as Herald columnist Paul Curran wrote a fortnight ago: "I think Meath are a decade or two behind Dublin in terms of developing players to play at county level ... Meath football is in crisis."

Yet, as McEntee pointed out this week, via www.GAA.ie, Meath have previously endured long fallow periods against the Dubs - and back in 1982, pre-Boylan, they actually lost to Longford. "Look at that team of the late eighties. Everyone would say they were hard-nosed fellas who knew how to win. They knew how to lose for a long time too," he reminded.

"I'd like to think that we could find ourselves in a situation where all the experience that lads have gained, good or bad, will stand to them."

Starting Sunday.

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