When Laois and West' were best ...
Fifteen years after Leinster final saga, rivals are back in Croker chasing silver
Dessie Dolan and Chris Conway have very different memories of the Leinster final saga of 2004.
For Dolan, it was the crowning achievement of his long senior career: an All Star leader on the first Westmeath team to end the county's provincial purgatory. "When the final whistle blew," he recalls, "the scenes in Croke Park were chaotic. It's very rare you see emotion like that in the GAA."
Meanwhile, the stricken captain of Laois was watching on from a hospital bed.
Just six days earlier, Conway had struck the injury-time equaliser to save the reigning Leinster champions and pre-match favourites. "I definitely would have liked to think, coming off the field in Croke Park that day, that I would have been playing the following Saturday instead of watching it from a hospital bed in Portlaoise," he says.
"My appendix burst ... I had to get the appendix out on the Friday evening. To make it worse I was captain that year."
Just 15 years ago; but different times. Footballing famines were fast-becoming an endangered species. Armagh won their maiden All-Ireland in '02; Tyrone followed suit in '03, the same summer that Laois won their first Leinster SFC title in 57 years.
Laois were managed by a Kerry icon, Mick O'Dwyer. Imitation being the sincerest form of flattery, Westmeath appointed Páidí Ó Sé and he duly made Leinster SFC history in his first summer.
The drawn final attendance in 2004 was 56,440 - a huge figure given the counties involved. For the replay, it stood at 38,300.
Whereas for this Saturday's Allianz Football League Division 3 final, the Croke Park crowd will be a fraction of either.
It's not the only thing that has changed: Dublin have won all bar one of the following 14 Leinster finals, by ever-increasing margins.
Even though Laois and Westmeath are now on an upward curve (John Sugrue has won back-to-back promotions and reached last year's provincial final; Jack Cooney has added promotion to Westmeath's first O'Byrne Cup in 31 years) can either dare to dream of repeating those glory days of old?
"The first thing is to get competitive in Division 1," says Dolan, the RTÉ pundit citing Monaghan as "the best example" of a summer contender fuelled by sustained top-flight exposure. "That's where we were when we won, despite the fact that we always struggled in Division 1.
"As well as that, the foundation in Laois and Westmeath was underage success. You had the three minor teams in Laois and you had us winning an U21 All-Ireland and two Leinster U21s. Until that is corrected, I still think we're a little bit off the pace."
Westmeath's recent underage record (underwhelming to put it mildly) is "the major concern" for Dolan. "In fairness to (county chairman) Billy Foley, there's a good bit of talk about it in Westmeath and they certainly are trying to work harder in the development teams. And there was a major positive this year in that Luke Dempsey is getting involved again with the U16s, and Jack Cooney is going to help out with the U14s. There is an awareness that it has been neglected."
Back to the here-and-now. Dolan is expecting a "strange enough atmosphere" in a cavernous Croke Park. Westmeath won when they met in late February; Laois blitzed them in last year's Leinster quarter-final ... and now they'll meet at the same last-eight stage in Tullamore on May 26.
With promotion assured, is shadow-boxing on the cards?
"I wouldn't think so," argues Conway, who will be on radio commentary duty for Midlands 103. "If either team had a realistic chance of winning a Leinster title - like back in '04 when we ended up competing for one - it might be a little bit different. But there's not much silverware out there to be got now in the GAA, and especially in Leinster with Dublin being so dominant ... ultimately I think both teams will be going gung-ho for the title."