The last time Westmeath played a senior football championship match at Wexford Park, it was the start of a wonderful adventure that culminated with a place in the All-Ireland quarter-finals.
Back in 2001, Westmeath travelled to the south east for a first round qualifier, in what was the first year of the so-called ‘back door’ system. A point from Ger Heavin in injury time at the end of extra-time earned the Lake County a draw (1-19 each). It was a game which finished with Westmeath getting out of jail in both normal time and extra-time.
Westmeath won the replay in Cusack Park,1-16 to 1-8 and they went on to defeat Limerick, Louth and Mayo, thereby reaching the All-Ireland quarter-finals.
Lake County supporters will be hoping that this Saturday’s match at Wexford Park (throw-in: 5pm) will also prove the start of a championship journey – and this time the preferred destination is a place in the Leinster final.
Westmeath should enter the match in a confident frame of mind. They have a decent record against Wexford in championship matches in recent times, and they have the attacking players to give the Wexford defence plenty of problems.
Wexford were impressive in their opening round win over Offaly, winning the game by 2-16 to 0-8 that nobody, this writer included, had predicted.
The Westmeath defence has not convinced this season, with the likes of John Keane, Damien Healy and Derek Heavin no longer around, while Michael Ennis has only recently returned to action and is short of match sharpness.
In addition, two of the team’s established defenders – Kieran Gavin and Frank Boyle – have struggled to find their best form, but they both have the ability to produce the goods on the big day. This duo will be definite starters in defence, with Boyle likely to be at corner-back and Gavin at full-back.
The other corner-back position is up for grabs. Aidan Finnan played there in the recent challenge match against Meath, having operated at centre-back for most of the season.
In the half-back line, Finnan will probably battle it out with Kieran Martin for the centre-back position, with Martin’s greater work rate likely to be favoured. If Ger Egan is selected for one of the half-back positions, the battle for the other is likely to be between Doran Harte and James Dolan. Dolan is the more creative player but Harte has bigger match experience and that may sway the decision in his favour. Even if Dolan doesn’t start, he could play a valuable role as a substitute.
At midfield, Darragh Daly has really put himself into contention for a starting place with his challenge match displays. A player who has shown major improvement over the last year, his fielding ability could be of crucial importance.
Denis Corroon and Brendan Murtagh formed the midfield partnership in the last few league matches. And if Corroon gets the call ahead of Murtagh to partner Daly, he will need to up his work-rate significantly as he has a tendency to drift in and out of games. Corroon had a happy knack of chipping in with vital points during the league and he needs to augment this with plenty of grafting around the field.
David Glennon might get the nod at centre-forward, possibly because of his ability to feed good quality ball into the inside forwards. Conor Lynam is likely to start at wing-forward and John Heslin is putting Paul Sharry under pressure on the other wing. If played at wing-forward, Heslin’s fielding ability could prove valuable in contesting kick-outs. No doubt, the option of putting Heslin in at full-forward at some stage will also be considered and he would offer a genuine goal threat at the edge of the square.
After his sending off in the Leinster under 21 semi-finals, there were those who didn’t want to see Heslin in a Westmeath jersey again. But thankfully he has returned to the fold. Just a year out of the minor ranks, it is hoped the St Loman’s player has learned from his previous mistakes, and he certainly deserves a chance.
A full-forward line of Paul Greville, Dessie Dolan and Denis Glennon is expected to start. Dessie Dolan was the conductor of the attacking orchestra during the league and his craft was sorely missed in the defeat to Louth in the Division 3 final. Glennon is most effective when deployed close to the opposition goals, where his pace and ability to take on players makes him very menacing. Wayward finishing remains his main weakness but, if he remains inside, he can do serious damage.
After their impressive win over Offaly, Wexford Coach, Jason Ryan is unlikely to make many changes, and they may opt for an unchanged team. Although Colm Morris was named at No 13 for the Offaly game, as expected he operated as a third midfielder. Redmond Barry, named at No 15, played at centre-forward, leaving a full-forward line of Ciarán Lyng, Shane Roche and Ben Brosnan. Wexford certainly fooled everyone in taking apart Offaly last time out.
To win on Saturday, Westmeath need to produce a performance on a par with the how they played in the league game against Offaly. The worry for most Westmeath fans is that they haven’t produced such a display either before or since this season.
The question on Saturday is what is the real Westmeath – is it the team which played superb attacking football against Offaly, scoring 19 points (18 from play) in the process? Or is it the team which was well beaten by Louth and Saturday’s opponents in the earlier league games, and which laboured to a draw against Cavan
Westmeath’s form in the challenge matches they’ve played since the Division 3 league final hasn’t been encouraging and it was the performances in those games, rather than the results, which will have caused some concern.
Wexford’s running game and support play were impressive against Offaly and the Westmeath players will have to work hard to counteract this facet of the Slaneysiders’ play. With this match forming the first part of a double header – the Wexford hurlers take on Kilkenny in the first of the Leinster SHC semi-finals afterwards (throw-in: 7pm) – Wexford are expected to have the backing of a considerable following on Saturday.
Westmeath have the ability to spoil the party for the home supporters, but only if they show fierce determination and hit top form on the day.