Westmeath hurlers rising to new levels

Michael Walsh enjoyed the two-hour drive back to Dicksboro on Wednesday night week last.
Westmeath hurlers rising to new levels

Well, enjoyed it as much as he could. Having won two All-Ireland medals in the black and amber, his heart will forever be Kilkenny’s, but his hurling brain is currently on loan to Westmeath. He’d be lying if he said he didn’t take satisfaction from the county’s shock Leinster U21 quarter-final win against the Cats.

Walsh has been making the four-hour round trip to Mullingar for some 17 months now. Westmeath County Board chairman Sean Sheridan and secretary James Savage got in touch in November 2014 to inquire whether the former Kilkenny goalkeeper would join the Westmeath management team they were putting together. Newly appointed manager Michael Ryan was next to call. Walsh had been out of the inter-county scene since stepping down as Kilkenny U21 boss in 2011, but he was intrigued.

The first two-hour drive up to Mullingar was made before the turn of the New Year and he hasn’t looked back since.

“My brief was to take the hurling session every Thursday night. I didn’t know what way it was going to work out, but from the first night I went up, I was hugely impressed with the attitude of everybody involved, the professionalism of the backroom team, of the players and just the way everything was done. I always went back down the road happy and satisfied.”

During the early months of his involvement last year, Walsh, keen to find out what was going on at underage, would arrive into Cusack Park with a bit of time on his side so to catch the end of the minors’ session under Johnny Greville. The former Westmeath hurler was in the stand last Wednesday week and wasn’t surprised by the result.

Appointed minor manager for the 2014 season, Greville cast the net far and wide in a bid to find every last bit of talent operating in Westmeath’s 14 hurling clubs.

121 players were looked at, 60 of which were retained as part of a “working panel” put in place to give players an insight into an intercounty set-up. Kildare may have marked their card in the first round of the Leinster championship, but the Raharney native was content a fairly solid foundation had been laid. A year later they took Wexford 2-11 to 0-15 at the quarter-final stage in Wexford Park.

‘The biggest result in the history of Westmeath hurling’ ran the headline in the Westmeath Examiner the following week. Had it been reused last week, there wouldn’t have been too many complaining, Greville least of all.

Five of his 2015 minor team — Joe Rabbitte, Niall Mitchell, Killian Doyle, Darragh Egerton and Ciarán Doyle were inside the whitewash against Kilkenny, a further four pulled from the 2014 side.

“A lot of these lads are dual players, they have played hurling and football for Westmeath coming up along. Sean Maher was in goals against Kilkenny, Darren Giles came on; they both played minor football for Westmeath. Players seem to be edging towards hurling at the moment as they enter their adult careers and that says something about the direction Westmeath hurling is going in.”

Greville served as selector to then senior manager Brian Hanley for the 2013 season and he has lauded the efforts of those from outside the county who have given of their time to further the small ball game in the Lake County. There’s Michael Ryan travelling up from West Waterford, Walsh from Dicksboro, Hanley from Athenry, Denis Coen the county’s performance coach, whose role is funded by the money Westmeath are allocated by the National Hurling Development Committee is a native of Ballina. Former Dublin football boss Tommy Carr is another lending a hand.

“We’re blessed,” continues Greville.

“When I was over the minors, Martin Fogarty took a good few of our sessions. Denis Coen helped too. Thomas Mount was another. There is a massive backroom team working with the U21s and that is being part-funded by Croke Park and the Leinster Council. They are helping to provide these people to Westmeath. The county board deserve credit too because they are spending the money wisely.”

The insider’s view, mind you, has done them no harm either. Stephen Morley and Feichin Brenan, among others, were involved with the Westmeath U16 teams that won three consecutive All-Ireland B titles from 2010-12.

“The nucleus of the U21 squad, six of whom have seen senior action this year, got a taste for winning off the back of those wins. The grade didn’t matter,” added Greville.

How high can they jump?

“We’ve won nothing yet so we are keeping our feet on the ground, but what is happening is that people are getting up off their chairs because they see something is happening here. There’s going to be a right good crowd in for the visit of Galway,” said county chairman Sean Sheridan.

Last word to Greville: “I think we can reach a Leinster U21 final. If we do that, a senior one won’t be far away.” Since 2009, every Leinster minor, U21 and senior final, bar one, has been contested by Dublin, Wexford, and Kilkenny. Laois, after much banging, forced their way into the 2013 minor decider. A 13-point hammering saw them thrown out again. “It is time for that trend to change.”

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