'Páidí just said if you go back hurling don't come back in that door. As straight as that'

Westmeath hurling stalwart turned selector Brendan Murtagh missed out on a Leinster football title under the Kerry legend.
'Páidí just said if you go back hurling don't come back in that door. As straight as that'
Westmeath manager Páidí Ó Sé, left, and selector Tomas O'Flaharta celebrate victory over Laois in the 2004 Leinster Final. Photo: Ray McManus / SPORTSFILE

It’s among the most famous panels in GAA folklore: Páidí Ó Sé’s Westmeath setup in 2004.

The documentary Marooned captured the intensity and madness of it brilliantly. Half the country can quote it. ‘A grain of rice will tip the scales’. ‘Fucked over the sideline like a loaf of bread’.

Brendan Murtagh, who played hurling for Westmeath for 17 years until he retired in 2017, was in on the ground floor, called in at the start of Páidí’s reign.

But then he told Páidí about his weakness for hurling. And that was the end of that.

Murtagh recalled those early months, talking to Anthony Daly on the Irish Examiner GAA Podcast.

“The first thing he did was put us on a plane and bring us over to Mick McCarthy and Sunderland’s training ground. The boys were never run like that before. It was rough stuff.

“I was with them for a few months, training hard enough. Páidí was direct. He was a character. He was fairly straight. He told you what way he wanted it and that was it.

“The training was absolutely brilliant. Tomás Ó Flatharta was there. It was training I had never done before.”

But then the usual call came.

“It was only when the hurling games started that it was killing me, that I was missing games.

“I told him the hurlers were looking for me to go back and play hurling with them.

“He wasn’t impressed. I remember going in thinking what am I going to say. I knew by him what the answer was going to be, but I had to approach him anyway.

“I said they were only looking for me to play games, not to train. But it didn’t matter.

“He basically said, look, if you go back and play hurling don’t come back in that door. That was basically the message.

“It was as straight as that. That’s how he gave it to me, so I said ‘fair enough Páidí’.

“When the option was there in front of me, take one or the other, it was an easy enough choice.

“They went on and won the Leinster, the only Leinster they ever won and people still ask me, are you raging you left.

“But to be honest, I’m not. Hurling was my sport. It wasn’t a really hard choice. I enjoyed football but hurling was number one.”

Murtagh won three Christy Ring Cups during his Westmeath career and says the advent of that competition was a turning point for the game in the county.

“It is a few years ago now, but football always got the nod ahead of hurling in Westmeath. I'll probably be killed for saying that.

“The Christy Ring was brilliant for the likes of us in Westmeath. It was a realistic thing that we could win. When it came to the championship we were never really in the running for it. We just weren’t that standard. But the Christy Ring, all of a sudden it was something we could win.

“First time it came in, there was a trip to New York, players hear that… 10 days in New York, a holiday, to win that!

“But I can remember games where you’d be playing on the Saturday and you would be playing club football on the Sunday.

“It’s not like that now. But 15 years ago it was. Every weekend you were being pulled. You were definitely out twice. That's just the way it was.

“When you’re playing a football game the day after, you think, do they really care about us at all?

“You think, they're not looking at this and being serious.

“It was clear that they felt footballers could do more, they were getting priority. But it’s not like that anymore and rightly so.”

Murtagh is a selector in current Westmeath hurling boss Shane O’Brien’s management team. And having secured another season in the top division of the Allianz League, he believes the county is on the verge of another breakthrough.

“We’re in a different situation now, We’re Division 1. We mightn’t be beating top teams but we feel like we’re competing. And we’re given every chance.

“A lot of our panel now would have played in the U21s when they beat Kilkenny at Cusack Park. Those lads, 23, 24 now, played against the top teams underage and beat them on different occasions.

“We need to take a scalp, definitely.

“We’re knocking on the door long enough. And for belief in the squad we need to win a big game.

“I believe the hurlers are there. A lot of lads know it. But for them to go and do it, it might bring them places then.

“You wouldn't know what would happen after that.”

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