‘The game of their lives’: Westmeath have upset Derry before - they could do it again

Westmeath have never beaten Derry in the All-Ireland, but a famous league encounter in 1994 sparked a flame in the Lake County and taught Joe Brolly’s team a lesson. Gary Connaughton recalls a feat that suggests Saturday’s clash is no foregone conclusion

As Westmeath goalkeeper Gary Connaughton enjoyed a famous victory over Derry in 2004 before losing to them in 2010. The counties face each other again this weekend. Photograph: James Crombie/Inpho

Derry? Yes, Gary Connaughton remembers Westmeath games against Derry, though not necessarily the ones you are thinking about.

Westmeath and Derry have only played each other twice in the history of the All-Ireland SFC and Connaughton was the Lake County goalkeeper on both occasions – 2004 and 2010.

But long before that, Westmeath had a day of days against the Oak Leaf County in April 1994. Derry were reigning All-Ireland champions at the time and Westmeath were plodding around in Division Four, occasionally popping their heads up to dutifully fulfil the role of cannon fodder for those higher up the food chain.

Westmeath put together a string of results to finish top of the Division Four table that season and their reward was a league quarter-final against the top team in Division One, Derry. The match was fixed for Enniskillen, though nobody expected it to be much of a contest.

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Still, it wasn’t often Westmeath supporters got to see their team play against the Sam Maguire holders, so sandwiches were prepared, flasks of tea were filled and buses were organised for a road trip to Brewster Park.

One of the coaches departing Westmeath that morning carried a group of under-14 Tubberclair players, including a kid who would eventually become the county’s most decorated goalkeeper.

“That day is my big memory of Westmeath playing Derry,” recalls Connaughton. “It was my first time going up through the Border to the north and I remember the British army coming on the bus, guns and everything, and asking for ID from a few of the older lads, including my uncle.

“We’d never seen anything like this, it was all new to us. There was one of the boys wearing a Celtic jersey and the lads were telling him to put a jumper on, but he kept saying, ‘I’m not covering it up’.”

The bus eventually made it through the checkpoint and safely to Enniskillen.

Just seven months earlier, Derry had beaten Cork in the All-Ireland final. Westmeath’s last Leinster final appearance had been in 1949.

Derry’s Kieran McKeever and Joe Brolly celebrate after beating Cork in the 1993 All-Ireland final. Photograph: James Meehan/Inpho

“We never really had anything to celebrate growing up, we were just going to Enniskillen more because it was against Derry,” adds Connaughton. “They were the All-Ireland champions, Westmeath didn’t even have a sponsor for the jersey.”

Mattie Kerrigan was the Westmeath manager at the time and before the match word filtered to the midlands about Derry’s preparations.

“I don’t know if it was entirely true, but I believed it to be,” says Kerrigan with a smile. “In the build-up to the game we heard Joe Brolly had said he didn’t even know what colour jerseys Westmeath wear.

“I remember telling the lad who was marking him to make sure Joe never forgot what colour Westmeath wore from that day on.”

It would prove to be a momentous afternoon for the maroon and white.

Westmeath chalked up a 3-6 to 0-11 victory in that league quarter-final, with Larry Giles scoring 2-2. The Irish Times the following morning carried the headline: ‘Westmeath joy as form book is torn apart.’

“By the end of the afternoon Westmeath men were being borne aloft on broad shoulders,” the report stated.

Connaughton remembers dashing out on the pitch at the final whistle to celebrate the shock victory, as Brolly, Anthony Tohill and the rest of the Derry players – previously recognised only from TV – trudged off the pitch, vanquished by little Westmeath.

“That was a big win for the entire county, it felt like one of the first significant achievements for Westmeath’s footballers,” continues Connaughton.

“Growing up in Westmeath back then, you usually might only have got one championship match every summer, where you’d lose to Louth or Wicklow in the first round and then that was it for the year.

“So that win over Derry in 1994 will always stick with me, a lot of things happened for Westmeath in the years after.”

Kerrigan, too, believes that victory over Derry sparked a flame.

“It was a tide-turning game in a way for Westmeath, because there were plenty of good footballers in the county, but the team had been down the divisions for too long,” he explains.

“That win in Enniskillen felt like a defining moment maybe in Westmeath football, a victory that gave them the belief to start climbing up the ladder.”

In September 1995, Westmeath won the All-Ireland minor football title for the first time. In that final, they beat Derry.

Thomas Cleary of Westmeath in action during the 1995 All-Ireland Minor Final. Photograph: Lorraine O'Sullivan/Inpho

Thereafter, the Westmeath footballers grew in stature. The appointment of Páidí Ó Sé as senior manager in advance of the 2004 season demonstrated how far their stock had risen in just a decade.

Connaughton, who was also a talented soccer goalkeeper, was Westmeath’s number one during what was a golden period for the county.

In July 2004, the Lake County made history by claiming their first Leinster senior football title – it remains their sole Delaney Cup success. Three weeks after that breakthrough, Westmeath travelled to Croke Park to face Derry in an All-Ireland quarter-final.

“At the very start of the year, the whole goal was to win Leinster – there was nothing mentioned about All-Irelands or quarter-finals, it was all about winning Leinster,” says Connaughton.

“The first meeting we had with Páidí was in the Citywest Hotel in Dublin and from day one he told us he was here to win a Leinster title with us.

“So, that was the goal, that was all that mattered. There were a lot of celebrations after winning that Leinster, because for Westmeath it was like winning an All-Ireland. The homecoming was massive and the county was on such a high, everywhere you went people wanted to talk to you about it.

“The focus just wasn’t there for that Derry game in the same way we were focused for every game during the Leinster championship.”

Derry's James Donaghy retains possession despite the efforts of Westmeath's Paul Conway and Fergal Wilson in the 2004 All-Ireland quarter-final. Photograph: Donall Farmer/Inpho

Enda Muldoon and Paddy Bradley netted first-half goals to provide Derry with a platform to run out 2-9 to 0-13 winners.

“It was a memorable year, but it was a little bit disappointing it finished that way. It would have been nice to play Kerry in an All-Ireland semi-final, especially for Páidí.”

Westmeath and Derry met next in the 2010 All-Ireland qualifiers, this time in Mullingar. By that stage Connaughton had become an All-Star goalkeeper, but again Derry emerged victorious, 0-13 to 1-7.

The counties will meet in the championship for the third time on Saturday evening at Páirc Esler in Newry. Current Westmeath manager Dessie Dolan played in those two previous encounters as well.

“All of the pressure is on Derry,” says Connaughton. “Westmeath have nothing to lose but they will need to play the game of their lives if they are to win.”

They’ve done it before.