Ask yourself; when last did a game of football in June have you as a neutral on the edge of the couch, leaping off it, urging a team over the line, hollering over their latest score, as Westmeath v Meath had last Sunday?
It wasn’t that it was a ‘shock’ in the conventional sense. Both sides played in Division Two this past spring. The last time Meath finished among the top eight teams in the league was in 2000. Westmeath were rubbing shoulders in Division One last year.
But it was stunning. For the nature of the comeback: The rivalry and the history, the sheer audacity and quality of Westmeath’s football. No other match in either code this summer has enthralled and thrilled so much.
On the eve of the championship, our greatest wish for it was some novelty, romance, upsets. Since Mayo, Donegal and Dublin laid down the law in their respective provinces in the watershed summer of 2011, it was as if the months of May, June and July had become something to be just endured by them and the rest of us.
Back one Saturday evening in 2012 alright, you had Sligo ambushing Galway in Salthill. A couple of weeks later Banty had his one moment in Meath, tripping up Kildare. In the 2013 Ulster final, Monaghan came all the way from Division Three to remind Jim McGuinness and everyone else the man was mortal.
Three games in three years. Hardly much to sustain the provincial championships, or us either.
That’s why the past 10 days has been so endearing. Sligo’s win over Roscommon was a joyful reminder that Sligo tradition of surprising the odds isn’t dead, and that great servants like David Kelly and Mark Brehony aren’t either.
Westmeath’s win on Sunday was even more uplifting. While their display the last day evoked for Pat Spillane the spirit of old comrade Páidí Ó Sé, for us it more triggered memories of Páidí’s predecessor Luke Dempsey and foot soldiers like Ger Heavin who weren’t even around for the provincial breakthrough win in 2004 and were repeatedly, agonisingly foiled by Meath. But in even daring to beat Meath and inspiring Westmeath to All-Ireland quarter-finals, they would have prompted the John Heslins to dream. And the beauty of it for a county like Westmeath is it will sustain and inspire other generations too. Somewhere in the Hogan last Sunday, watching, roaring, on his county on was an eight-year-old who’ll play for Westmeath after his childhood hero Heslin is retired.
Heslin and Westmeath was a gift to the rest of us as well. When has been the last time the neutral has got to be excited about an individual talent outside of the top six counties? In the noughties, we were treated to forwards like Mattie Forde and Declan Browne, Dessie Dolan and his cousin Frankie; All Star defenders like Barry Owens: names recognised all over the country who’d make the proverbial any team in the country.
The last four years there have been only four All Stars outside of counties that have contested an All-Ireland final in this decade. In the noughties Westmeath alone had four All Stars. Whatever about the prospect of a return to those days again, we’re all looking forward to seeing Heslin again.
Except the next time we will he’ll be facing Dublin. As the glow of last Sunday fades, that grim reality dawns.
Under Jim Gavin, Dublin have played eight games in Leinster and won six of them by at least 16 points.
The average scoreline over those eight games has been 3-20 to 0-13. Only one Leinster team has got within single figures. Westmeath will be doing extremely well to become a second.
That’s why rubbishing the need for a two-tier championship is as flawed as any call for the abolition of the provincial championships outright. Football needs both. The way we’d envisage a two-tier championship, Westmeath would have more great days like last Sunday: Beating a Cork or a Tyrone at home, the crowd jubilant that they’ve retained their status just as they’d heartily celebrate any promotions and the earned right to take on the big boys.
We, and Dublin, deserve to see them being tested by sterner opposition when the ground is hard in May, June and July, like they are in the wind and the mud in February and March.
They’ll be tested in early August though. The way the draw is working out, their All-Ireland quarter-final will invariably be against whoever loses next Sunday’s Munster final.
You might not have realised that up to now. The public doesn’t seem to have really understood the rationale and intricacies of the Qualifier A and B split. But the way it’s breaking down is this: Win in Killarney and you have a far easier passage to the All-Ireland semi-final: your quarter-final opponent will most likely be one of Kildare, Cavan, Roscommon, Fermanagh, Clare or Westmeath.
Lose, and any All-Ireland quarter-final will be against Dublin.
Rightly or wrongly there’s a sense in Cork that Brian Cuthbert needs to either win a Munster title and/or reach an All-Ireland semi-final to retain enough momentum and confidence among key publics to stay on for a third season. What is beyond doubt is that he needs a couple of big performances from his team. One huge result would open up so much.
Because as cute as Sligo and Westmeath’s wins have been, the same questions concerning the business end of the championship prevail. Can anyone trip up Dublin and Mayo meeting in one All-Ireland semi-final, and Kerry and Donegal in the other?
Monaghan remain the best prospect. For Donegal and Mayo to assume their customary spot in the last four they both very likely will have to go through Malachy O’Rourke’s side.
Should Mayo beat Sligo as expected, their All-Ireland quarter-final opponent will be either the loser of the Ulster final, or a side that goes on to beat that Ulster runner-up in the last 12; that is, any of the winners of Tyrone-Meath, Armagh-Galway, Tipp-Louth and Derry-Wexford.
Whoever does win Ulster will definitely face one of that eight in the quarter-finals. Don’t be surprised, in other words, if Donegal have to play someone they’ve already played in Ulster.
And if the All-Ireland semi-finals are repeats of final pairings in recent years.
Unless Cork shake it all up in Killarney. Or Heslin and Westmeath are only starting.