Westmeath and Derry get ready for battle of the unlikely lads
Croke Park finale a reward for Westmeath, the real surprise package in the division
Both teams are already safely promoted, have perhaps season-defining championship dates looming, and yet both Westmeath and Derry are perfectly stuck in the moment of Sunday’s Division Two final of the Allianz Football League.
There are those who question the need for such a final – and indeed Saturday evening’s finals in Division Three and Four: Sunday’s headline act in Croke Park between Dublin and Tyrone carries definite prestige, but for Westmeath and Derry, their curtain-raising act is just as worthy.
“Firstly, I think it’s a reward to players who have put in a big effort all year, to take part in a final in Croke Park, an exceptional stadium,” says Westmeath manager Pat Flanagan. “And it’s great preparation for championship, given we play Carlow three weeks later.”
Westmeath were unquestionably the surprise package of Division Two: hotly tipped for relegation, they instead went unbeaten all the way until the last round, when already sure of promotion, Flanagan fielded an experimental team against Sunday’s opponents, and they lost (and with that perhaps have another reason to win on Sunday, to make some amends).
Yet one eye is naturally on the championship, and if Westmeath can get past Carlow on May 19th, they’ll face Dublin in Croke Park on June 1st (which means Flanagan will take some extra interest in Sunday’s headline act).
“Of course we’ll be watching Dublin,” he adds, “but we won’t take Carlow for granted. Carlow is our main aim in three weeks’ time, but at the end of the day everyone has to have aspirations, and we believe if we can get over Carlow that we can come up here to Croker and beat Dublin.”
That’s a challenge for another day – and yet Westmeath may well qualify as the most improved team in the country: “When you get a group of guys that work extremely hard, perform to their ability and have the self-belief that they can beat anyone they are playing, then the sky is the limit,” explains Flanagan.
Their cause has been also helped by the return of forward Dessie Dolan and veteran goalkeeper Gary Connaughton:
“What they offer the panel, apart from actually playing, is brilliant, and they’ve been a huge experience and a calming effect on everyone around.”
Yet Flanagan also pays tribute to a former Westmeath under-21 footballer, Mark Rohan, paralysed in a motorbike accident several years ago, but a double gold medallist in hand-cycling at the London Paralympics.
“I met Mark last November, with a view to maybe giving a talk or two. About two minutes into our conversation I realised that he had a lot more to offer Westmeath. He arrived in, no airs or graces, brought his two medals, not to highlight what he achieved but to highlight what can be achieved.
“I think it really set the bar for the year because every player was amazed by his speech he gave on the day. We always go back to the very first day we met Mark, what he said and what was taken from that meeting, I think we’re living off that and I think it’s been invaluable what he offers the panel.”
For Derry, meanwhile, Sunday’s final offers their manager Brian McIver the chance to further blood his young panel of players, having gone for considerable youth when taking charge at the start of the season – and also with a crucial Ulster showdown looming against Down on June 2nd.
“We’ll have maybe 10 lads appearing here in Croke Park for the very first time,” says McIver, a native of Ballinderry, although actually on the Tyrone side of the county border, which the town straddles.
Like Westmeath, not many people expected Derry to be in Sunday’s final – especially after the first-half showing in round one against Galway, when they could barely even hold on to the ball. “True,” smiles McIver, “and I remember after about 13 or so minutes thinking, ‘can we get a score here?’ It was almost at that level. We had a great number of lads playing together for the first time and they really, really found it hard to find their feet. But we finished that game actually very positively and that helped us going into the next match with Laois.
“But with a young squad of players we set out this year to just to take it one game at a time, we didn’t want to put them under any undue pressure and we’ve ended up here playing good football, which is great.
“Derry football maybe had went through a 0period of stagnation for one reason or another and that’s very hard to put your finger on but young lads are very, very keen to learn. They’re prepared to listen and to change their game, or whatever, and they’ve all bought into it.
It helps McIver offers vast experience – having managed Donegal to their league title in 2007, and later working with Down: “And then if you take various club sides and school sides down the years, I’ve probably been involved well over 30 years in football. I certainly can’t complain in terms of that level of experience.”