Sensational comeback as Westmeath make history in some style
Inspirational Kieran Martin helps midlanders to first-ever championship win over Meath
Kieran Martin of Westmeath celebrates at the final whistle after his side’s victory over Meath in the Leinster SFC semi-final at Croke Park. Photograph: Donall Farmer/Inpho
Westmeath 3-19 Meath 2-18
“It’s a miracle for the lads there,” says Westmeath manager Tom Cribben.
He’s not exaggerating. A historic first championship victory over the neighbours and for a moment it felt like 2004 all over again.
Then they showered, dressed and went out to watch the other Leinster semi-final.
That solitary provincial title from 11 years ago may stand alone for a while yet but this was a beautiful sporting revival.
Then John Heslin – magnificent and inspirational in equal measure – streaked clear of a terribly porous Meath defence, ignoring the insurance point to fire home the third goal.
There followed unprecedented outbursts of joy in the maroon pockets of Croke Park.
Meath only have themselves to blame after losing the final 20 minutes 2-9 to 0-1. Their young manager Mick O’Dowd calls them an evolving group, average age 23, so maybe this is their startled earwigs moment.
But probably not. They are far too naive.
They must enter the qualifiers without goalkeeper Paddy O’Rourke after an injury-time red card for driving his elbow into Martin as these powerful men collided unmercifully.
But talk about shifts in momentum. Pencilling in the wide count after 17 minutes – Meath’s six to their opponents two – our notes also showed 0-6 to a single gem from Heslin. Meath had also spurned two goal chances.
But they looked sharp. Eamon Wallace brought his frightening pace and accurate left boot to the party. Stephen Bray was close to the All Star of old. Graham Reilly was prominent until a foolish trip saw him black-carded.
Brian McMahon stamped a solid 2-2 on proceedings (Martin walked away with 2-3).
It seemed over as a contest when Bryan Menton and Wallace slipped two quick daggers into Westmeath’s rib cage to make it 0-8 to 0-1 after 21 minutes.
Heslin landed a long-range free to spark a fuse that exploded in a wonder of scores.
Heslin’s nimble hand pass saw Martin bearing down on O’Rourke’s goal. Mickey Burke had a split second to foul him. Martin stayed upright to unleash a shot that was never going to be saved.
We had a game for what seemed all of two minutes. A number of factors contributed to Brian McMahon’s two goals within a minute. His marker Killian Daly had just rolled his ankle but that doesn’t forgive poor judgement on the flight of a speculative high ball. McMahon pounced and buried to the net.
Westmeath couldn’t get near possession in the middle third and seconds later Wallace sent McMahon tearing down on goal. His finish was class.
Daly was pulled but at 2-9 to 1-3 the damage was done.
Meath were in total control until Martin moved from the heart of defence to the square’s edge. Most damning for O’Dowd is how Meath failed to tighten up after conceding 3-12 to Wicklow.
Kevin Reilly was named at midfield but dropped back between the defensive lines. He read the ball delivered into Martin on 50 minutes, he just couldn’t get a hand to it. Martin slammed home his second goal.
Heslin’s sixth point and a second score from a Paul Sharry ‘45’ made it a four-point game.
Dennis Glennon, a 2004 survivor, was on the pitch and showing for ball. Panic swept through the Meath ranks.
Suddenly Westmeath owned midfield as Heslin – the play now flowing through him – conjured up a brilliant score to make it 2-17 t0 2-15 with ten minutes remaining.
Mickey Newman ended Meath’s 11-minute scoreless period with a calmly struck free but Westmeath kept coming.
So much so that Donncha Tobin walked for dragging down John Connellan. Heslin pointed. He was relentless, his ninth point bringing matters back to the minimum.
Down the other end Mickey Newman saw the whites of Darren Quinn’s eyes but the Westmeath goalkeeper saved the forward’s weak shot.
Before we could draw breath the ball had travelled 120-plus yards to Martin who thundered in along the end line to punch the equaliser.
Then he punched the winner. Then he was nearly knocked out cold when bravely meeting O’Rourke in full flight.
“There was no Braveheart stuff, it was common sense,” said Cribben, “just to go out focused and that’s the truth.” Still, wouldn’t mind going to war with Heslin and Martin.
But Dublin are up next.
WESTMEATH: 1 Darren Quinn; 2 Killian Daly, 3 Kevin Maguire, 4 John Gilligan; 5 Paddy Holloway, 6 Kieran Martin (2-3), 7 James Dolan; 8 Paul Sharry (0-2, both 45s), 9 Daragh Daly; 10 Ray Connellan (0-1), 11 Ger Egan, 12 Dennis Corroon; 13 Lorcan Smyth, 14 John Heslin (1-9, six frees), 15 Shane Dempsey (0-2).
Subs: 18 John Connellan (0-2) for Daragh Daly (29 mins); 23 Jamie Gonoud for Killian Daly; 25 David Lynch for Smyth (half-time); 22 Dennis Glennon for Dempsey (38 mins); 24 Paul Greville for Gilligan (59 mins); 19 John Egan for Corroon (65 mins).
MEATH: 1 Paddy O’Rourke; 2 James McEntee, 3 Conor McGill, 4 Donncha Tobin; 5 Mickey Burke, 6 Donal Keogan, 7 Bryan Menton (0-1); 8 Harry Rooney, 9 Kevin Reilly; 10 Graham Reilly (0-4), 11 Pádraic Harnan, 12 Andy Tormey (0-2, both frees); 18 Eamon Wallace (0-4), 14 Stephen Bray (0-3), 15 Brian McMahon (2-2).
Subs: 13 Mickey Newman (0-2, one free) for Harnan (17-19 mins, blood); 17 Adam Flanagan for Rooney, 19 David Dalton for Burke (both 45 mins); Mickey Newman for Reilly (48 mins, black card); 21 Brian Power for Tormey (60 mins); 20 Ronan Foley for Tobin (62 mins, black card); 19 Seán Tobin for McEntee (69-70 mins, blood).
Referee: C Lane (Cork).