Westmeath 3-19 Meath 2-18: To put all the madness in its proper context, consider where Westmeath were exactly a year ago to the day.
They woke up that morning knowing their 2014 season was over and that they’d failed to win a single Allianz league or Championship match.
Before departing as manager shortly after that opening round qualifier defeat to Cavan, Dubliner Paul Bealin did have words of encouragement though.
“They are young and naïve but with a little bit of experience they can do well,” offered Bealin.
A year on, Westmeath have three Championship wins under their belt and a first Leinster final place since 2004 to look forward to. Anyone who says they saw it coming is telling a bare faced lie.
While the interventions of Kieran Martin and John Heslin were nothing short of historic, consider the role that Bealin’s successor Tom Cribbin has had.
After relegation to Division 3 of the Allianz league he betrayed his mild manner with an expletive-laden outburst that questioned the very integrity and character of his senior players.
Many reckoned he had Heslin in mind. If he did, and if it was a ploy to extract the best from his main men, the gamble has paid off handsomely.
— cliona foley (@ponyyelof) June 28, 2015
In the last 20 minutes at Croke Park yesterday they stared down history and refused to blink. They died for their manager and their county.
Where to start with the story of this game? A match with more angles than the most complex of trigonometry lessons as Meath initially moved 10 points clear, held their lead at nine with 51 minutes on the clock and somehow contrived to throw it all away.
How naïve Meath’s pre-Championship talk of chasing down Dublin sounds now. Based on their last two outings, against Wicklow and Westmeath, they are far too inexperienced and immature to overcome a teak tough, street smart side like Dublin.
That is not to take anything from Westmeath. The truth is they will probably be beaten by Dublin on Leinster final day next month, and beaten well. But not every county’s season is measured by cups and pdenis glennon
trophies. By simply reaching the final and burying the ghost of Meath whom they’d never beaten before in the Championship, they have done something incredible.
The build up helped. While Meath were stuttering and stumbling beyond Wicklow, Westmeath were busy putting Louth and Wexford to the sword.
And the confidence remained unbroken despite leaking two first-half goals to Meath corner-forward Brian McMahon, both scored in a blitzkrieg 60 seconds approaching the half-hour mark.
McMahon dovetailed superbly with his Ratoath clubmate Eamon Wallace, an equally speedy attacker, who scored four first-half points. Westmeath were barely hanging on at times and after initially falling 0-8 to 0-1 down, Martin’s 24th minute goal was vital.
Certainly Meath deserved their 2-12 to 1-7 half-time lead and when they outscored Westmeath by a point in the third quarter they nudged a little further ahead.
The decision to haul Martin out of defence and utilise his brains and brawn in the forward line was critical. Sub Denis Glennon played him in with 19 minutes to go and Martin showed enviable determination to spin away from his man, hold the defender at bay and blast beyond Paddy O’Rourke for Westmeath’s second goal.
Suddenly, Westmeath had a head of steam and Heslin, Paul Sharry and Ray Connellan added points. With an hour gone there was just two in it.
The mind raced back to the 2007 Leinster championship. Meath played Wexford that summer and built up a similar 10-point lead only to lose by one. It was galling stuff but this was even worse for their supporters to take, in front of the eyes of the nation at GAA Headquarters.
All Meath could muster in that final 20 minutes was a point from a Mickey Newman free. Their decision making at crucial spells was terrible. They had several point opportunities but went for goals and were denied.
All the while, Westmeath’s hearts grew stronger and Martin summed up the team’s immense character. With virtually identical scores, he held off defender Donal Keogan while running along the left end line before fisting over for points.
The first drew the sides level. The second put Westmeath ahead in the 70th minute. By now, Meath were a mess and had already lost Graham Reilly and Donncha Tobin to black cards. Goalkeeper Paddy O’Rourke was dismissed on a straight red card in injury-time for a huge hit on Martin as he charged out of goals.
For Westmeath, the last act that will be franked on their brains was not Heslin’s expertly taken injury-time goal but his reaction. For several moments, the Mullingar man stood rooted to the spot with his arms outstretched and fists clenched, every vein and sinew tensed.
Just watching him, it felt like a historic moment.
Scorers for Westmeath:
J Heslin (1-9, 5 frees), K Martin (2-3), S Dempsey, J Connellan and P Sharry (2 45’s) (0-2 each), R Connellan (0-1).
Scorers for Meath:
B McMahon (2-2), G Reilly and E Wallace (0-4 each), S Bray (0-3), A Tormey (two frees) and M Newman (one free) (0-2 each), B Menton (0-1).
D Quinn; K Daly, K Maguire, J Gilligan; J Dolan, K Martin, P Holloway; P Sharry, D Daly; R Connellan, G Egan, D Corroon; L Smyth, J Heslin, S Dempsey.
J Connellan for D Daly (29), J Gonoud for K Daly (30), D Lynch for Smyth (h/t), D Glennon for Dempsey (39), P Greville for Gilligan (59), J Egan for Corroon (65).
P O'Rourke; J McEntee, C McGill, D Tobin; B Menton, D Keogan, M Burke; H Rooney, Andrew Tormey; Graham Reilly, P Harnan, K Reilly; E Wallace, S Bray, B McMahon.
M Newman for Harnan (18-19, blood), A Flanagan for Rooney (45), D Dalton for Burke (45), Newman for G Reilly (47, black card), B Power for Tormey (60), J Wallace for Tobin (62, black card), S Tobin for K Reilly (67), D Carroll for McEntee (68-70, blood).
Conor lane (Cork).
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