Out in the wastelands, Leinster football is a penny-pincher's racket. If you're not the Dubs, you can't afford to only measure wins on the scoreboard. Straitened times mean you have to source currency elsewhere, never more so when you're eight points down at half-time.
So when Tom Cribbin walked into the Westmeath dressing-room a fortnight ago, his eyes saw a victory regardless of whether or not they kicked another score all day. There under the Cusack Stand, his team was gathered in groups excitedly plotting the second half, as though the game was still alive.
They’d been roasted in the opening 35 minutes but Cribbin didn’t need to rally them or hotwire a bit of life into them. They had all that taken care of before he set foot in the room.
“We knew we get goals when we have a go at teams so it was a matter of going out and enjoying it,” he says. “That’s what they were saying to each other. They knew it wasn’t gone.”
Regulation half-time chatter, maybe. But wind the tape back only six months and there wouldn’t have been a whisper of it. When Cribbin spoke to reporters after an O’Byrne Cup game against the same opposition back in January, he talked about a dressing-room filled with fear.
“Some of them said in there that they were nearly nervous walking down the street now with a Westmeath bag because lads would be smirking at you. To get through that confidence barrier with them is going to be very tough.”
Change came dropping slow. To get a feel for how it happened, it’s worth a quick rummage through the life and career of the man in charge. Tom Cribbin has been managing teams since he was 32. He was player-manager of Clane for four years and took them to their only Leinster final in 1997.
He took over Laois at 35, after a string of high-profile names turned them down. By the following summer, they had Tommy Carr's Dublin beaten only to be robbed by a last-minute equaliser from Ian Robertson that should never have stood. He stayed in the job for two years and the bulk of that side went on to win a Leinster title in 2003.
He managed Offaly at short notice in 2009 after Richie Connor resigned at the start of the league. Walking into a fractured dressing-room, he still managed to winkle two qualifier wins out of them a year later before exiting to eventual All-Ireland runners-up Down.
The following year they beat Monaghan, Offaly’s last championship victory of any sort until last month.
If there is a pattern, it is of making the best of a bad situation. Of finding a thread of hope and knitting away at it until you hold something of substance in your hands. Cribbin walks out into Croke Park tomorrow as manager of a Leinster final team. If anyone saw that only him, they were keeping damn quiet about it.
“Ever since I was young, I was working for myself,” he says. “My parents were self-employed people and that’s probably what I grew up seeing – people who made decisions and were their own boss. I knew that when I wanted a career, I wanted to work for myself. It wasn’t that I wanted to be a pilot or a writer or a teacher. It was, I wanted to work for myself. I wanted that flexibility and that responsibility.
“I became player-manager [of Clane] because nobody else wanted to do it. I just love working with teams and seeing players improve. Some people judge improvement by whether you win or lose but it’s not that simple.
“Once I know that I’ve done the best that I can and I’ve got what could be got out of them, then I get great satisfaction from it.”
Everything has its limits, of course. It’s all very well saying you don’t always judge improvement by winning or losing but when you take over a county that is coming up on two years since its last victory, certain realities are unavoidable. That O’Byrne Cup game against Meath in January was so fraught because the need for a win – any win at all – was chronic.
“We lost that game and played DCU the following Wednesday night. They just knew they had to win a match to take this pressure off them. It wasn’t the prettiest football on the Wednesday night. But I can safely say it was one of the most courageous performances I’ve seen from any football team.
“That Wednesday night was two days short of the 600 days since they last won a game. We knew that if we didn’t win that night, it would be over 600 days by the time they got to play again on the weekend. The pressure was building, building, building.
Bodies on the line
“Everybody talked about it, saying it was headed for two years with no win. We couldn’t carry that pressure into the league. We had to get a win, no matter what it took. And that night was just incredible, they put their bodies on the line so much.
“There was more pressure on them that night than there was at half-time the last day in Croke Park. No team I was ever involved with showed more courage than those guys did against DCU that night.”
If the win gave Cribbin’s side some breathing room heading into the league, they still spent much of the spring gasping for air. A second successive relegation was a harsh enough sanction for some not especially terrible displays and Cribbin knew his side were better than the face they were showing to the world.
"We're only at the stage now where they're starting to believe what I was saying to them [about belief]. Back then, I still didn't know them. That was the main reason we went down – I didn't know the players. I had never seen any of them play a club match and it was the end of the league before I saw any of them play in one that mattered. There was no point watching them in Mickey Mouse club league games because you don't know what they're playing against. You need to see them in club championship to really judge them.
“At the end of the league, I couldn’t put my finger on what was wrong. The real truth of it was that I didn’t know my players well enough.
“When you’re picking a team, you naturally pick what you think are the best 15 footballers. But those 15 don’t necessarily gel as a unit because you have too many of them that are great in the same position.”
He thinks now that his own selection errors were the main cause of their relegation. He hit the headlines at the end of the league by declaring that certain senior players weren’t doing what was needed but after apologising to them for making public what should have been a private grievance, he looked at it with a cooler head.
“My problem was I had six brilliant inside forwards and in the modern game, you can only play two inside at best. So I was trying to fit all these guys into the team by playing a few of them in the half-forward line. You’re looking to get them on the pitch because they have the class to take scores. That’s what was happening in the league.
“I couldn’t get my head around exactly what the problem was and I was thinking it had a lot to do with the previous year and their confidence being low and all of that.
“But actually, it had nothing got to do with that. It was my mistake – I was trying to squeeze too many of these guys into my front six when the simple fact of it is you need a few lads who are out-and-out workers, whose game is about graft, graft, graft and giving it to the quality lads. That was our big problem.”
Their scoring level has spiked markedly since then. Totals of 3-14, 1-21 and 3-19 this summer are a huge departure from the league, where their highest score was 2-12. However they go about playing Dublin tomorrow – and Cribbin is adamant they won’t be presenting themselves for a routine beating like Longford did – that level of scoring must be maintained. Or aimed for, at any rate.
We can win
“There isn’t pressure on us on Sunday. We think we can win. I know most people laugh at us but we think we can win. The players actually know whether I believe that or not. If I don’t think I can win, I have to be honest with them. At the start of the year, I told them that every team in Leinster was a minimum of 10 points behind Dublin. Now they know that I think we can come up with a plan to win.
“You’re some fool if you go playing Dublin like they’re any other team in the country. Go and watch the teams that play them in Division One. They don’t line up man-to-man against them. If you’re a Division Two team or a Division Three team and you line up like that, you’re a goner.
“You’re going to get what you deserve. It’s all very well trying to play nice football or whatever but with the speed and fitness and skill that they have, taking them on one-on-one doesn’t work and it can’t work. It doesn’t work for the big teams so why would we try it?”
It won’t be easy. It won’t be in the same postcode as easy. But then when nothing ever was, you don’t know any different.