Six weeks ago, Tom Cribbin vented his spleen in the wake of Westmeath’s relegation to Division 3 of the Allianz league and laid into his players, effectively questioning their integrity.
Not just any of his players either, but the ‘big players’, the players who should be ‘standing up and leading’ but who apparently ‘f***ing lay down’ when the going gets tough.
That was then, however, and this is now and the two situations are, thankfully for Westmeath fans, poles apart. When the game was in the melting pot yesterday in Drogheda and Westmeath needed leaders, they duly stood up.
Nobody grasped the nettle more enthusiastically than the biggest player of all in maroon, John Heslin.
The Mullingar man and former Aussie Rules player wasn’t at his best throughout spring and was perhaps in Cribbin’s thoughts when he made that extraordinary outburst following relegation to Division 3.
But Heslin was on his game yesterday and pulled a callow Louth side apart with nine points and a major hand in two of Westmeath’s three goals.
It was a performance that harked back to happier times in Heslin’s Westmeath career before the team went on a losing run that yielded back to back relegations across 2014 and 2015.
Patrick Reilly was the Louth full-back who marked Heslin and, initially, did well but was soon left in the UCD man’s slip stream.
Westmeath’s third goal was the strike that killed off Louth and, typically, Heslin was fully involved, playing a slick one two with Ray Connellan that ended in a rippled net.
Where Westmeath go from here is anyone’s guess after a troubled few seasons. But with Wexford their opposition in Mullingar on June 14 they can dare to dream of another win to secure a Leinster semi-final place.
They could very well have injured trio Denis Glennon, Paul Sharry and Kieran Gavin back for that tie too. Whisper it quietly but Westmeath may have turned a corner and Cribbin’s rant may have been a master stroke.
“I had strong words because the boys know we didn’t perform in the league,” said Cribbin. “Those boys are definitely Division 2 standard and they know that. But there was no problems with what was said.
“I had no problems with the players, they had no problems with me. We came back, the players got stuck in at training and we moved on well. I speak from the heart the whole time with them.
“I was just disappointed at the time. I was disappointed for them. Sometimes you want to have an excuse — the lads were drinking or messing or something. But it wasn’t like that. They’re as committed a bunch of players as I’ve ever worked with in my life. When you have people like that and they’re nice people to work with, you want to see them achieve. That’s where the comments came from.”
It sure was impressive when Westmeath got going though the game took it’s time to heat up.
The first-half was a hesitant, nervous affair containing 29 fouls. Maybe that was to be expected after relegations for both teams in the league.
Westmeath led 0-7 to 0-6 and Louth — who’d played with the stiff breeze, estimated by Cribbin to be worth four points — looked like they were just coming good.
But two goals in six minutes after the restart put Westmeath into a winning position. McCormack burst through the centre and finished off a fine counter attack with a roofed finish for the first before Dempsey’s palmed second goal shortly after.
Louth responded with their brightest period in the game. They clipped over four points on the trot including two from Ryan Burns, their primary outlet and the teenager who scored a goal on his debut when they beat Westmeath last summer. But Westmeath’s third goal 12 minutes from time, typically engineered by Heslin, was the killer blow.
Whether either of these teams will ultimately make a serious dent on this year’s Championship is open to debate but it was great to watch in the second-half with not a blanket in sight.
Even Louth manager Colin Kelly said he was content to go down fighting instead of putting 13 men behind the ball. “We deliberately targeted that, that we wanted to go out and to try and win the game rather be afraid of losing it,” said Cribbin. “That’s what we said we were going to do, to win a game rather than be nervous and lose the shagging thing because we didn’t try hard enough.”
J Heslin (0-9, six frees), R Connellan and S Dempsey (1-2 each), C McCormack (1-1).
R Foley for Stapleton (57), L Smith for Daly (59), F Boyle for Holloway (70)
R Burns (0-6, four frees), D Byrne, C Grimes, E O’Connor and T Durnin (0-2 each), C Judge and D Maguire (0-1 each).
E O’Connor for Smith (34), D Finnegan for Duffy (42), R Moore for Maguire (49), D Crilly for Stewart (61)
Barry Cassidy (Derry).