On a weekend of three provincial semi-finals, two went as expected and then we had one nail-biter for the ages where Westmeath finally broke their Meath hoodoo with an incredible second half performance at Croke Park.
It can sometimes be the lazy option to give all the praise to the winners while second guessing every move the losing teams made. Studying the three games, one of the recurring themes was the contrast in attitude and belief between some of the sides. Every team at every level talk about attitude and belief but how do you measure these things? Words like leadership, character, balls, clutch and coolness are often used to describe players and teams for their actions when games are there to be decided.
On Saturday night in Clones with 10 minutes to go, it appeared to me the game was still on the line and Derry were in with a live chance of turning over Donegal.
Donegal had failed to reach the heights of their earlier Tyrone and Armagh performances and you were just waiting for Derry to up it a level and really go for it. Instead we saw a number of turnovers, poor-decision making and a lack of discipline which point to many of the Derry players mentally checking out when the game was at it’s most crucial stage.
I had read with interest Kildare defender Peter Kelly’s pre-match comments where he made it very clear that Kildare didn’t fear Dublin and were coming to win —in fairness, what else would you expect him or any of his other team mates to say but it certainly didn’t translate into the Kildare performance yesterday.
It was the manner in which they were beaten that would leave you asking questions of how they prepared for the game as it very much looked like a team that was mentally beaten before the ball was thrown in. Usually every team has a purple patch and has the opposition on the back foot at some stage but apart from a few minutes after half-time where Kildare upped the physical stakes and got a couple of unanswered points, Dublin had total dominance throughout.
Jim Gavin and his team continuously reference that they don’t look beyond the challenge in front of them and yesterday they delivered another performance that matched the talk.
It was yesterday’s opening game at headquarters that really gave an insight into two teams heads as the game developed in the second half. Meath had been in cruise control in the first half, scored 2-12 and looked like they could create goal chances at will. Westmeath were clinging on desperately but allied with some tactical changes at half time they continued to chip away at Meath. With 15 minutes remaining they trailed by four points and their work rate and body language made it very clear they had no doubts they could win this game.
A number of times Westmeath worked scores by being patient and getting the ball to the man in the best position which added to their team belief.
Meath, on the other hand, were playing as individuals and when they lost Graham Reilly to a black card further confidence was drained from them. Another factor in their poor decision-making in the final quarter would be down to physical fitness, or lack of it. A number of players were out on their feet and when you are physically spent it makes it more difficult to make the right calls mentally. An area that really let them down in the closing stages was their kick out. After some early short kick-outs had gone awry, Paddy O’Rourke had taken to launching them long, but with the game on the line he aimed two kick-outs at Mickey Newman around midfield with Westmeath winning both of these. Newman is a big man and fine forward but he was also isolated under these kick-outs and this seemed very much hit and hope for Meath at such a crucial stage.
Westmeath closed out the game in very different style by creating scores by playing to their strengths and sticking to a game plan. A famous victory, one which their players and management had seen clearly in the days leading up and had no doubt they could deliver.