Rivals Offaly and Westmeath pull no punches in midlands derby

Derbies are the order of the day across the country this weekend, and those who choose to make the trip to Wexford, Cavan or Galway will also get to observe at least one All-Ireland title contender in action.

No such carrot exists for the tie at the newly christened Bórd na Móna O’Connor Park at Tullamore, where Offaly host Westmeath with the dubious prize of a Leinster semi-final against Dublin on offer.

Yet to those who live anywhere close to the 40-mile border between these two midland rivals, territory incorporating the bulk of the footballing heartlands in both counties, the fact that the reward is the near-certainty of a harrowing defeat at Croke Park is irrelevant.

These two bald men will fight to the death to seize that comb.

“Vitriolic” is how Aidan O’Halloran described the rivalry between the sides, and the All-Ireland winner from 1982 would know better than most after he took one small step, or some would say one giant leap, back in 1980.

Though born in Offaly, O’Halloran played all his underage club football with Moate All Whites — a powerhouse club in Westmeath with their home field located “a kick of a ball” from the Offaly border. However what he perceived as a lack of ambition from the Lake County encouraged him to take up an invitation from Offaly boss Eugene McGee to transfer his allegiance across the border in 1980, and the move wasn’t well-received.

“At the time, I was working in Tullamore with Bank of Ireland, and while I was part of a successful club, and had won an All-Ireland medal with the Carmelite College in 1975, the commitment wasn’t what it needed to be in Westmeath” he recalled.

“There were players there like Seán Heavin from Moate and Seamus Conroy from the Downs, top quality players who were totally committed, but that wasn’t matched by the rest of the group.

“I was a young, ambitious footballer and I wanted to be the best that I could be, and I simply didn’t see it happening with Westmeath. Eugene approached me and since I had strong Offaly connections and lived in Tullamore, I was happy to make the switch. But there were good friends of mine who were very angry with me for a considerable period of time.”

On the field, O’Halloran was rewarded with three Leinster medals and one Celtic Cross — but success didn’t come easy, and a first round draw against Westmeath in Mullingar in 1981 didn’t help.

“At that time, there was never a question of who was going to win between Westmeath and Offaly, and that affected the psyche of the supporters. If you’re beaten year after year by the same county, you develop an inferiority complex.

“We struggled to get over Westmeath that day, they even missed a penalty if I recall, but I heard some very cutting stuff before, during and after that game.”

O’Halloran will be supporting Offaly from a distance on Sunday as he’s in the US to watch his son Tiernan play for Ireland against the US Eagles tonight. Since making the move to Clifden, O’Halloran grew more and more involved with Connacht rugby, culminating in his appointment as Connacht Branch president in 2012.

He drew parallels between the achievements of Connacht last year and those of Westmeath under Páidí Ó Sé, who broke their 55-year hoodoo against Offaly and went on to win a Leinster title in 2004.

“Good coaches instil self-belief. You can’t blame history for not making a breakthrough. Pat Lam brought about a change in attitude in the players, I could see it in Tiernan. Games where they might have looked to just hold out before, now they wanted to win and to do so in style.

“Even in Offaly, though we had men with All-Ireland medals in the panel, Eugene was a highly intelligent guy and while his personality wouldn’t have been everyone’s cup of tea, we kept making progress, one step at a time.”


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