Westmeath's Ger Egan seeks final solace in history books

Ger Egan knows his history. Ask him how a Division 4 team – which is what Westmeath are now given their relegation from the third tier in the spring – can beat the Division 1, Leinster and All-Ireland champions and he brings up the summer of 1997.

Tommy Lyons was in charge of Offaly back then when the Faithful became the last side to make light of their lowly station at the bottom of the league ladder by claiming the provincial title. And that was in an era without a side of Dublin’s class.

“It is not impossible, not impossible,” he repeats. “We know what we are coming up against. They are an unbelievable team and you can't say otherwise. We are going to have been on top of the game and (have) a bit of luck on our side and you never know.”

That Westmeath are back in the provincial decider 12 months after losing to Dublin in Croke Park stands as something of an oddity given that league form and yet Egan and manager Tom Cribbin have a simple enough explanation.

When Cribbin took over as manager late in 2014 he nailed his colours to the mast in much the same way Mick O’Dwyer had always done. League football was nothing more than a distraction to him, a holding action before the real battle broke out.

Cribbin wasn’t in the door a week when he told his players that they would become the first Westmeath team in history to beat Meath in the championship. It was a bold intro and the team finished the story for him in the Leinster semi-final.

Westmeath have now won five of their last six games in Leinster this past two years. They have outstripped Kildare, Meath, Laois, Wexford and the rest to lay legitimate claim to an undisputed ranking as best of the rest in the province.

The question now is: how much further can they go? Egan admits that the win over Meath last year more or less amounted to their own Leinster final. The scenes in Croke Park that day said everything about what it meant to the county to break that particular glass ceiling.

Yet Egan doesn’t want that to be his footballing epitaph. None of them do. When he looks back on that win now it isn’t for reasons of nostalgia so much as education and how their comeback that day has helped imbue the side with a never-say-die-attitude.

It is one that has been apparent in their defeats of Offaly and Kildare this summer and it is a trait that will be among the most important when they seek to put lessons learned from the 13-point defeat to Dublin last time into practise this Sunday.

He remains unapologetic for Westmeath’s defensiveness in that 2015 provincial final, one which ended with them scoring just six points and having earned the scorn of a plethora of opponents unimpressed by their approach.

“Maybe we got some stick and some people said it was a good thing but you look at any team, the best teams in the country, Tyrones and Kerrys, they are going to put 13 or 14 men behind the ball. They mightn't have went so ultra-defensive but they are still going to do it.”

The most remarkable aspect to it all is that they managed to limit Dublin to just 15 scores on the back of two weeks of intensive prep on a system which bore no resemblance to the attacking approach that had got them to the final in the first place.

Egan noted the plaudits Fermanagh earned for their spirited up-and-at-‘em approach against Dublin in the All-Ireland quarter-final but the fact is that they lost heavily too. The aim this weekend is for a system that harnesses a better balance between attack and defence.

“It is easier said than done. That balance is hard to get. We have to take a few more chances and commit a few bodies forward.. We came up with that style of play in two weeks and I don't think it was too bad. Maybe it was a step too far, but it wasn't too bad.”

An unenviable task it may be, but Westmeath are in a better place now than was the case just less than three months ago when they were sat slumped in the away dressing-room in Longford and pondering life in the fourth tier next season.

“I would rather be in a Leinster final than Division 3,” says Egan, “put it that way.”

Indeed.                


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