Westmeath end Kildare’s ‘stigma’

There have been greater glory days for Westmeath GAA, that’s for sure. The Leinster SFC title on July 24, 2004, for one, would be hard beaten but last Sunday has secured itself a place in the annals.

Westmeath end Kildare’s ‘stigma’

By the time Athlone GAA club member Robbie Henshaw caught Conor Murray’s kick and touched down for a try, his county had sealed their first ever league victory over Kildare.

Even better, it came in Newbridge where they were humbled by 17 points just 12 months ago.

Throwing that monkey off the back was the latest and perhaps most compelling piece of evidence yet that Westmeath have turned a corner after a depressing run that saw them winless from May 2013 to January just past when they beat DCU.

A few days prior to that and after Meath beat them in Mullingar, new manager Tom Cribben spoke of a crisis of confidence in the camp. It got so bad, he said, players were embarrassed to walk down the street carrying their county gear bag “because lads would be smirking at you”.

Their first victory over a county team in 19 months came a few days after that DCU win when they beat Longford. Since then, there has been a win over Laois, a close-run defeat to Galway and that most sweet recent result in St Conleth’s Park.

Nothing was said in the Westmeath camp beforehand about their frightful record against Kildare but then nobody had to mention it, said Paul Sharry. They just knew.

“There had been a stigma attached to Westmeath’s games against Kildare,” he said. “We were well aware of it. It wasn’t spoken about but afterwards it was discussed. The last couple of times they have beaten us well (in 2012, Kildare won by 17 points).

Afterwards, some of the younger players on the panel friendly with Henshaw like his clubmate Ray Connellan had more reason to cheer when they checked their Twitter accounts for updates from the Aviva Stadium and discovered their pal had scored a try.

Sharry isn’t much of a rugby fan but could appreciate Henshaw crediting his Gaelic football background for his soaring catch. It was only three years ago that the 21-year-old was lining out for Athlone in a relegation play-off against Tubberclair.

“There’s always a crossover between the two but at least in Gaelic football you don’t have to worry about soloing,” says Sharry. “You can keep your head up. But then you think of the physicality in rugby — Robbie’s 21, is 105kg and 6ft2in!”

Just as a county swelled with pride when their and Ireland’s No12 outleaped Alex Goode, so too have they reason for cheer their footballers after a trying period when it seemed everything that could go wrong did.

“We’re getting there,” Sharry suggests. “Last year was very tough. To put in a lot of work and get little out it was difficult. Things were getting on top of you and you were asking yourself ‘are we ever going to get a win?’ “Games that don’t have pressure became pressure games for us and the more the pressure came the more tough it was.

Even the O’Byrne Cup, it doesn’t relatively mean much but when we beat DCU it got the shackles off.”

Speaking personally, Sharry never felt the embarrassment Cribben spoke of but the pain of it was acute for him especially as he was captain in 2014. “At the end of the day, you’re playing football at a high level and you’re put out there. You want to do your county proud. You don’t want to be letting them down.

“People lose faith in you and it’s very easy to point fingers. It would have been very easy for lads to walk away and say ‘I couldn’t face that.’

Sharry and Westmeath won’t be losing the run of themselves now that they currently reside at the top of Division 2. But when they were labelled as fodder before the start of this campaign, four points is a satisfying bounty especially when they hadn’t a point to their name by the same stage in Division 1 last year.

“There have been years before when we did exceptionally well in the league and faltered in the championship so we’re not getting ahead of ourselves. We’re just going better than we did last year. We’ve a good crew together, a lot of having coming up from the U21s together. Dennis (Glennon) and Gary (Connaughton) have the experience and they’re keeping us going and we’re taking the guidance from management.”

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