Memorable afternoon for Westmeath
Sport

Memorable afternoon for Westmeath

WITH 15 minutes remaining in last Sunday's Leinster Championship match between Westmeath and Meath, Ian Rush left his seat in the Bloomfield House restaurant to see what all the fuss was about.

He had a fair idea of what was going on. Having travelled across to Mullingar for the weekend on business, the former Liverpool and Welsh striker had his prep work done. Meath and Westmeath were rivals, he'd discovered.

And the League is of less importance than the straight knock-out format of the Leinster Championship. "It's better that way. I always preferred the FA Cup myself," he said.

What really caught his eye, and his ear, was the passion of the locals. All around him in the hotel restaurant, meals were being abandoned as Westmeath cut into Meath's lead. Nine points in arrears with 20 minutes to go, the gap kept closing and the television in the hotel's main bar became a magnet for everyone's eyes.

"Go on Westmeath," one lady shouted. She must have been in her 80s, old enough then to remember the 22 previous Championship encounters between these sides, the 20 defeats, the two draws.

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"I'd love it if we beat them. THEM!!!!"

If the antics of the restaurant goers was a source of fascination for Rush then even those dramas were being overshadowed by the unscripted comeback on the television screen. Three points down, then two, then one, the tension mounted with every passing minute. "They're going to do it," Rush suggested.

And he was right. After 80 years they finally did it - John Heslin's goal allowing the damn to burst and tears of joy to flow.

Fifty miles away in Croke Park, Gerry Buckley unashamedly jumped for joy. A reporter with the Westmeath Examiner, Gerry's passion for sport in his native county persuaded him to swap a much more lucrative accountancy profession for the journalism game. "You have to follow your dream," he once told me.

Yet following Westmeath entails watching dreams get crushed. Last year, the footballers didn't win once. Twelve games, 12 defeats. He was at the first 11, but couldn't stomach going to the final one in Cavan, opting instead to watch the Clonkill hurlers play in the Leinster club Championship.

A new year brought a new dawn. And also a new manager. Tom Cribbin was a man Gerry knew well and held in high regard. So even though Cribbin was not the county's first choice to fill the managerial post - Peter Leahy was - Gerry believed he'd make a difference.

And he has. But not without pain.

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In March, Westmeath coughed up four goals in Navan and were thumped by Meath. A week later they surrendered far too easily against Roscommon and Cribbin played the riskiest card available in a manager's deck. "Some of our players are not giving 100 per cent on the field," he said. "We need those men to be our leaders."

As a strategy, it could easily have backfired. But a squad weekend away in Breaffy in Mayo cleared the air. "What Tom said was dead right," said James Dolan, one of his players.

Slowly the belief came back. Wins over Louth and Wexford set them up for Sunday's semi-final, their 23rd Championship meeting with Meath. "The biggest ambition of my life is to see us beat them just once," said Gerry, who had attended every 'heartbreak' from 1965 to 2009.

Eventually, his wish came true and a picture of him celebrating can be seen on Eamonn Carr's (the former Horslips drummer and now Evening Herald journalist) Twitter page.

That picture of a grown man frozen in mid-air, screeching with delight, brought home the true meaning of Championship Sundays, the parochial tribalism, the unchecked passion.

"To us, beating Meath in Championship is how the east Berliners must have felt when the wall came down," said Paul Hughes, a son of Delvin, which straddles the Meath border. Then he stopped himself. "No, it's the fall of the Berlin wall plus the liberation of Paris after World War 11. The difference is that our persecution went on a lot longer."

Sunday, however, saw it end. "What a game," Rush said. "And what a goal from that lad Heslin. He picked his spot." As someone who scored 346 times for Liverpool, it's fair to say Rush knows a thing or two about good goals. "All about the timing," he smiled. After 131 years of the Championship, Westmeath finally got their timing right.

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