Lakemen trapped in circle of despair
WE'LL start with a riddle. You're a Westmeath supporter and your county footballers have endured a traumatic start to the new season; there is a pall of gloom hanging over Cusack Park. So then, in the face of a mini-crisis, who's the last county you'd want to meet?
Got it in one -- Meath!
Yes, the dreaded Royals loom next for Westmeath, who currently find themselves trapped in a seemingly vicious circle of heavy defeats, defections, damaged morale and more defeats.
This downward spiral preceded the return to county management of Brendan Hackett (care to remember last year's league, Dublin last June or Meath last July?) but has continued unabated through the early weeks of the new boss's tenure.
Depending on your viewpoint, Hackett may be entirely blameless or else only partly responsible, but the fact remains that Westmeath's best two forwards -- Dessie Dolan and Denis Glennon -- will not be in the away team's dressing room at Páirc Tailteann this Saturday evening.
Glennon walked off the panel less than two weeks ago and, at the time of going to press, there was no imminent sign of his return. Dolan's last known involvement at intercounty level was giving a once-off coaching session to the Carlow forwards.
For a county scarcely noted as a font of forward riches, their absence is a depressing state of affairs. It wouldn't be so alarming if the county was winning; instead their only victory from five competitive outings this season came against Kilkenny in the O'Byrne Shield. And 17-point cakewalks against non-stick-wielding Cats don't count.
They lost to DCU by 10 points in the O'Byrne Cup. Their Shield ambitions ended in a six-point defeat to Wexford.
While no one attaches any lasting significance to pre-season results, the National League does matter. Westmeath started in a blaze of first-quarter promise against Donegal, but ended up on the wrong side of a seven-point home defeat.
What followed away to Armagh -- a demoralising 2-19 to 0-8 collapse -- was far worse. Little wonder, then, that many Westmeath fans have already written off the battle to preserve Division Two status as a near-impossible task.
Where has it all gone so horribly wrong? Where do you begin?
Actually, the last league collision between these modern-day rivals is a good starting point. Two years ago to the very day (March 2, 2008) 14-man Westmeath overcame their Meath nemesis by 1-10 to 0-8.
It was Westmeath's first NFL victory over their neighbours since 1973. And, even though there had been less than a handful of league meetings over the previous 35 years, the mini-pitch invasion in Mullingar was perfectly understandable for the obvious reason that Westmeath have never -- ever -- beaten Meath in championship combat.
That spring campaign ended with Westmeath crowned as Division Two champions. Summer brought a strange kind of glory -- they narrowly failed to scalp both Dublin and Tyrone -- but collective disappointment was softened by All Star recognition for goalkeeper Gary Connaughton and corner-back John Keane.
Statistically, Westmeath boasted the meanest defence in Ireland that season. Last year they leaked more prolifically than all of Leinster House. In a perverse way, the seeds for their demise had been sown by the success of '08; once the injuries started to mount, ó Flatharta's threadbare squad was ruthlessly exposed in the league's top flight.
Come championship, even though various injured stalwarts hobbled back into action, Westmeath were devoid of confidence, not to mention the required level of fitness. They were blessed against Wicklow but bludgeoned by Dublin to the tune of 27 points. Perhaps it was only fitting that Meath, the perennial oppressor, should put them out of their misery in the qualifiers. Cue the immediate resignation of ó Flatharta, an outsider who contributed handsomely to the most glorious decade in Westmeath's admittedly sparse history.
Managers come and go, but the bigger picture is that Westmeath were always facing a period of turbulent transition. The total dearth of underage achievement since 2000 was bound to have painful senior consequences, sooner rather than later ... but, then, Westmeath wouldn't be the first county board to take its eye off the ball in the midst of an apparent boom.
Given the team's age profile and mileage, retirements were inevitable this season. You'd never have guessed, though, that John Keane and Dessie Dolan would have been first in the queue. Keane, Westmeath's only two-time All Star, cited persistent injury problems and stressed his retirement had nothing to do with the appointment of a new manager.
However, it has clearly been a factor in Dolan's ongoing absence. Whether Westmeath chiefs would ever have appointed Dessie Dolan Snr in the first place is a moot point but, in terms of GAA realpolitik, they clearly blundered in not even interviewing the father of their most celebrated player.
Glennon was still around for Westmeath's last league outing but his subsequent defection has prompted further unease among the maroon die-hards. This isn't the first time that the mercurial forward has absented himself from the county squad, and sources have suggested that management won't go chasing after him -- that he will only return on their terms.
Against this backdrop, Westmeath now face an early-season watershed against the old enemy. After the Armagh debacle, Hackett explained: "The reality is we've had eight training sessions and that's what it looked like today." On Saturday night, after a three-week break between matches, the same excuse won't wash.
Given their fraught history, it's hard to conceive how Westmeath can possibly win against Meath opponents who traditionally relish inflicting further misery upon them. But they badly need a display of defiance -- a performance that suggests 2010 is not a write-off already.
Even more critically, they need another underage revolution. A promising U21 team has already beaten Kildare.
Earlier on Saturday they will go chasing a Leinster semi-final place. And their opponents in Mullingar? Got it in one -- Meath!