Tuesday 25 September 2018

John's leap wizard of from Oz to Westmeath

To score a goal in Croker beats the MCG every time for Heslin

IF things had worked out differently, John Heslin could have been togging out for the Richmond Tigers against Carlton in the MCG last night.

Instead, he'll be walking onto Croke Park tomorrow for his first Leinster senior football final, only his county's fourth, and a chance to measure up against Gaelic football's new benchmark, Dublin.

Heslin has swapped one famous sporting amphitheatre for another. More significantly, when deciding in early 2012 to call time on his nascent Aussie Rules career, he was answering to his first sporting call. The GAA. St Loman's.

And, of course, Westmeath.

"That's what you have to weigh up," he explains. "You are always thinking, would you prefer scoring a goal in Croke Park or scoring a goal in the MCG with Richmond?

"At the end of the day, playing for your county and where you are from and the lads you've grown up with ... you can't beat that, and that's the great thing about the GAA. There's not too many places in the world where you get that feeling, that kind of emotion."

Playing for Westmeath, of course, elicits all manner of mixed emotions. Since Heslin returned, they have endured far more grim championship days than good. They have been promoted to Division One (in 2013) only to suffer back-to-back relegations en route to Division Three.

But now, climbing Phoenix-like from the "low enough point" of demotion last April, they're in a Leinster final.

It almost comes as a shock to realise that Heslin, for so long trumpeted as Westmeath's great white hope, has just turned 23. He has been superb in two of their three Leinster outings, kicking nine points (three from play) against Louth and following up with 1-9 (1-4 from play) in that epic semi-final comeback against Meath.


Come what may against the Dubs - and most neutrals are predicting a crushing case of reality bites - it still represents some form of validation for Heslin's decision to cut short his rookie AFL contract with Richmond.

"It was an unbelievable decision to make for a 19-year-old. I definitely would have done things differently," he now says, looking back.

"I went out a lot earlier than other lads as far as the season (is concerned) and I wasn't eligible to play for a good six-seven months. So you are just training and, yeah, to any sportsman, that's a load of ... it's not nice. That was a mistake on the club's behalf and my behalf. I knew no better. I thought I was doing the right thing."

He couldn't play in that period because of contract issues.

"I was in dressing-rooms with the first team and experiencing it all, getting revved up for games," he recounts.

"I was like the horse being held back at the start - I just couldn't run and go and I really wanted to. It was tough. I was training for seven months and, sure, you are just get fed up.

"You go from 19 in the GAA, playing three games a week at that age, flat out ... and then go to no games. That was a big change.

"I thought if I went out earlier I'd start earlier the next year, get a game. I probably should have been told to stay at home until October, when Irish lads usually go out," he continues.

"I stayed to the last day of the pre-season, which is the toughest part of the sport, so I could say it wasn't because it was hard or anything like that. I purposely stayed to the end of it. They couldn't believe I was actually leaving because they said 'The easy part is now, why are you leaving?'

"The whole college and degree thing played a big part as well. I can't say if the previous seven months had an effect, just build-up."

It's not because Westmeath are in a Leinster final that he can talk about having no regrets over his homecoming.

"I am now doing a doctorate, a level 10, pushing out the boundaries both in education and - I like to think - the sporting field as well. I am enjoying what I'm doing and surrounded by good people. What more could you want?" he asks.


The UCD graduate is forging a career in agriculture, working out of Teagasc's Grange Research Centre in Meath while researching heifer puberty for his PhD. Between that and the football and part-time farming at home, Heslin has his hands full. He wouldn't want it any other way.

The one big difference between Melbourne and Mullingar? "Your facilities. When I went to Richmond, they had just invested in a $20 million clubhouse - swimming, jacuzzi, ice baths, all in the one place.

"It's hard to compare that with the capital investment required, considering we are an amateur game. The people (here) are second to none. They wouldn't be out of place in any professional sport."

He clarifies that the facilities available to Westmeath have "improved dramatically", with ready access to gyms; and while there is "always room for improvement", the county board and manager Tom Cribbin "have ideas and plans, and that's the good thing. We are striving to improve."

Heslin harks back to 2004, watching on as Westmeath claimed their maiden Leinster title: "I was 11 or 12 and, sure, it was unbelievable ... it was like we won the World Cup."

Mention two weeks ago against Meath, and he points out: "That was my first win in Croke Park and I've played there a lot of times now."

To win tomorrow, against all odds, would top the lot.

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