Underdogs Westmeath squandered a slew of chances in the first half (ten wides, against just four by Galway) yet were still on level scores (3-9 to 2-12) heading into the third quarter, and the large home contingent smelt blood.
That final quarter belonged to the visitors, however, and after a raft of effective changes (Shane Kavanagh and Tony Óg Regan shoring up the defence, Eanna Ryan and Joe Canning introduced to the attack), the odds-on favourites went on a scoring spree, six unanswered points (AllStar Damien Hayes very prominent), then a further 1-2 to close out the scoring.
A nine-point win but a battle all the way, and were it not for the scoring exploits of centre-forward and man-of-the-match Cyril Donnellan, with 3-1 from play – “My first ever hat-trick, I think” — along with the midfield heroics of David Burke, Galway would have been in real trouble.
“We were sluggish,” said Donnellan, “it took us a while to get going. We started off okay, got two goals in the first half, but Westmeath came back into it. Their goal before half-time was a killer, it brought it back to three points (2-7 to 1-7), and the break came at a good time for us. We tried to regroup but they made it tough up front, pulled back, minimised our space. We got another two goals in the second half but we didn’t hurl as well as we’d have liked. It was sloppy, stop-start stuff.”
It was all of that until that final quarter, but credit must go to Westmeath, who belied their league form — relegated to Division 3A for next year after losing every game in Division 2 — to lay down a real challenge to one of this season’s Liam MacCarthy favourites.
“Every team you have to have a plan against them,” said new Westmeath manager Brian Hanley. “We had different plans for different players. The big advantage we have in Westmeath is that we are very, very strong in the air and it is a real bonus. Galway hurling hasn’t been strong in the air, and today we exposed that — I hope that maybe that will bring on Galway and help them in that area.”
Strange kind of a wish for an opposition manager, one might think, but then Brian is himself a Galwegian and manages Liam Mellows in the city and has coached many of those players with Galway U21s.
Make no mistake about it, however, a win over Galway was what he had targeted here, and until his team faded in the final minutes, until Galway made those critical changes, a win was a distinct possibility. So many heroes for the Midlanders, Darren McCormack, Eoin Price, Brendan Murtagh, Paul Greville, all absolutely outstanding. They lost, but gained a lot of credit in the process.
Scorers for Galway: C Donnellan (3-1); A Callanan (1-1, 0-1f); D Hayes (0-4); J Canning (0-3, frees), D Burke (0-3, 2f); J Gantley (0-2); A Smith, B Daly, E eRyan (0-1 each).
Scorers for Westmeath: B Murtagh (0-5, frees), P Greville (1-1); D McNicholas (1-0); D Carty (0-2); C Curley, B Smyth, E Price, A Mitchell (65), P Dowdall, J Shaw (0-1 each).
J Skehill; D Joyce (c), D Collins, F Moore; J Coen, J Lee, A Cullinane; D Burke, K Hynes; B Daly, C Donnellan, A Smith; D Hayes, J Gantley, A Callanan.
Subs: E Ryan for Smith (46); S Kavanagh for Cullinane (51); T Óg Regan for Lee (54); J Canning for Callanan (56).
: C Scully; C Flanagan, D McCormack, A McGrath; E Price, A Mitchell, P Gilsenan; N Flanagan, B Smyth; J Shaw, P Greville, B Murtagh; C Curley, D McNicholas, D Carty.
Subs: A Price for C Flanagan (inj. 34); P Dowdall for N Flanagan (51); J Gilligan for McGrath (60); A Dermody for Carty (64); A Craig for McNicholas (71).
Referee: A Stapleton (Laois)