By Paul O’Donovan
Seventeen years is a long time when your club hasn’t won the county championship. On Sunday next in TEG Cusack Park, The Downs will aim to bridge a 17-year gap when they take on reigning champions St Loman’s Mullingar in the Westmeath Senior Football decider.
Both teams play an open attacking brand of football and The Downs, going for their first title in 17 years, will be hoping to win and prevent St Loman’s from winning another three in a row. It should be another cracking final, between the two in-form teams and it is a game that St Loman’s captain John Heslin is eagerly looking forward to.
The last two county finals St Loman’s played in, one of the games went to a replay and one of them went to extra time, before St Loman’s eventually won both, leaving them on the cusp of a three in a row this weekend.
Speaking to Topic this week ahead of the game Heslin: “No doubt it will be another close one this Sunday and I will be delighted if we are still in it late on. The Downs are going extremely well and are in-form so I am looking forward to a good close tight game.
“The Downs have a few county players on their side and that is great for football in Westmeath to see that, but one thing about teams that tend to get to county finals is that it is not the county players that stand out, but the other players will shine on the day. We rely heavily on our lads who may not be currently on the county panel, but those lads are driving the club on.
“For The Downs, it is 17 years since they got to the county final, but that won’t bother any of the players that are there. They have been knocking on the door and have reached four of the last five semi finals.
“They will bring that hunger, that drive, that determination and they deserve to be there and are there on merit. I am really looking forward to it, it is going to be a tough game for us and a great battle.”
The St Loman’s star forward admits that they will have to improve if they are to clinch another title on Sunday.
“The way the game has gone, the club game is now a high pace, high octane game, at different stages. But if we played the way we did against Killucan and won again this Sunday, that wouldn’t bother me, but honestly I don’t think that kind of a performance will be good enough to beat this Downs team.”
“The previous victories we have achieved will mean nothing when we step out on the pitch against The Downs on Sunday, each game has a new life of its own. The best way we, as players, can thank all the people in this club for their commitment as a volunteer in the club is to bring back a trophy at the end of the year. To do that we need to work on a few things in our game, and we are coming up against a strong, well drilled, well trained outfit who are hungry for this championship so we will have it all to do,” said Heslin.
Meanwhile The Downs captain, Mark Kelly, who is joint captain along with Luke Loughlin, is also looking forward to the big game. Kelly vaguely remembers the last time The Downs won the title.
“I remember a heap of lads arriving in on the back of a lorry with the cup,” said Kelly. That was back in 2005. Kelly is now 26 and has been playing with The Downs club since he has been five or six. He has been in the senior team the past nine years, getting to quarter and semi finals but now they are in the final.
“We have been knocking on the door of the final the past few years and now we have got there, we are still one step away from where we want to be. We have beaten St Loman’s already but that day they were missing a few and we were missing a few so Sunday’s game will be completely different. It certainly won’t be easy and it will be a dogfight to the sixty fifth minute or whatever, but it is 17 years since this club last won the championship and this is what we have been playing for and training for all those years so we will give it our best shot on Sunday,” said Kelly.
Kelly realises St Loman’s need to show massive improvement in Sunday’s final
It seems strange to say that a team who are appearing in their eighth successive county final this weekend, a team that has already won a three in a row, and are going for another three in a row this Sunday, will need to improve if they are to win. But that is the belief of St Loman’s manager Declan Kelly, who watched his side make hard work of winning their games this year, most notably their semi-final match.
Kelly says, “Coming into this final we probably have been doing just enough to get over the line but doing enough won’t be good enough this Sunday in the final, it is as simple as that. We know our performance has to improve a great deal from our semi final performance, and indeed our earlier performances. We were very poor in the first half against Killucan the last day, and to be fair they should have been further ahead of us. So since that we have been working on getting our standards up.”
Kelly, who has guided Offaly to All-Ireland U20 success in the past, is fully aware of what a very hungry Downs side will bring to the final on Sunday.
“Over the course of the year The Downs have been the form team. They are unbeaten in the championship and prior to that they won the League. They are a formidable outfit.
“Because The Downs haven’t been in a final in so long there will be a great hunger coming from them. So we really have to try and match that hunger from the word go.”
Earlier in the championship this year The Downs beat St Loman’s by ten points, 3-14 to 0-11 in the second round.
“This year in the second round The Downs gave us a good beating. It was over by half time back in that game, to be honest. The Downs are a very very mobile unit and they break with a lot of pace and they have a lot of runners coming from their half back line. They are a very strong running team and they have a great spread of scorers, so they are well capable of hurting us all over the field.”
While the blue half of Mullingar have enjoyed tremendous success over the last decade Kelly is well aware this success doesn’t last forever.
“It is always important to introduce some new blood each year, and if lads are coming off minor squads and doing well we try to integrate them.
“St Loman’s are after going on a great run when you think of their appearances in county finals over the last number of years. From a club’s perspective ever-yone here in St Loman’s wants to keep this going, because there is no doubt a barren patch will arrive at some stage.
So everyone has to realise these are great days for St Loman’s GAA Club. We haven’t mentioned anything about a three in a row, we are just in a final and we just want to win it, the same as The Downs.”
“The lads have shown great character to eek out results in the quarter and semi-finals when it has been in the melting pot, and we will be just hoping that with ten minutes to go that we will still be in with a shout. We will have to reproduce our second half performance agai-nst Killucan, and improve on that, and do that over the 60 minutes if we are to succeed on Sunday,” said Kelly, who hopes to have a clean bill of health from all his squad for Sunday’s showdown.
“It is all about getting a performance from those sixty minutes on Sunday” – Lar Wall
It may be their first County final appearance in 17 years but Lar Wall guarantees that The Downs won’t be overawed by the big occasion on Sunday.
The Downs will face reigning champions St Loman’s in the blue riband event and The Downs manager Wall believes his side are there on merit.
Speaking to Topic this week in the build up to the final Wall said: “The Downs have been on the top table the last few years and have been trying to make that next step, which was reaching the County final, which we have managed to do this year.
“This is where The Downs really deserve to be, after the few years of good work, and that includes the work at underage that is paying dividends for the club now.”
Wall, a former Laois player, played his club football with Arles/Kilcruise, who were very successful in the 2000s, before stepping into management with Gaeil Colmcille in Co Meath where he managed for seven years. In Meath despite reaching the county final the county title eluded the Kells club, something Wall aims to put right this Sunday in Westmeath.
Wall, now living in Enfield, Co Meath said, “This has been a nice introduction to Westmeath football and I am really looking forward to this game. County finals don’t come around that often. It is 17 years since The Downs were last in the final and this is so important for the people that have coached these players all down the years, mentors that have had these players at 16 and 17 years of age and younger and they should take great satisfaction from seeing these lads in this final.”
Not surprisingly The Downs is buzzing with excitement and anticipation leading up to Sunday’s final but Wall is making sure his players are not distracted by off field events.
“Really, next Sunday is all about the 60-65 minutes for us. We will be trying to get a performance during that time, and whatever else goes on before or after is completely separate, all we will be focusing on is the match and producing a performance in it.”
When The Downs played St Loman’s earlier in the championship The Downs won easy, by 12 points in the end, however Wall knows next Sunday will be totally different.
“There was a strange feeling to that championship game, it was played on a Wednesday night. It didn’t feel like a championship game. We got a few first half goals, Loman’s missed a penalty and they were missing their talisman and a few others but that game has absolutely no bearing on next Sunday. These two groups of players know each other quite well. There are a lot of good players on show and it should be a proper game of football.”
Wall is well aware of the attacking threat St Loman’s carry into the final.
“When you look at playing against St Loman’s you can’t put emphasis on any one player, it is about getting the balance right to deal with all their attacking threats, and the balance of preparing your own team and coping with the opposition. That is the challenge ahead of us and it is a big one, and they have quality players all over the pitch, as do we.”
“A key component of our championship this year has been that on different days, different players have starred, the last day it was probably Niall Mitchell, then in previous games it was Andrew Kilmartin, Ian Martin or Luke Loughlin. So we are constantly trying to develop this group of players. We need to have performances from fifteen players plus to be in there at the end.”
The Laois man is pleased to have several players back from injury including the talented Luke Loughlin.
“Luke is a unique character. When you look at some of his performances earlier in the year before he got injured, he was untouchable. His serious injury has robbed him of valuable game time, but he is back, and he was very important for us in the last game and got key scores but he can go up another notch this time around, and I feel the county final could be Luke’s stage.”
Wall is well aware of the challenge ahead of him but he would like nothing more than to bring the cup back to The Downs on Sunday.
“If we managed to win on Sunday, it would be brilliant for this club, the great facilities and all the kids that play here. All that just doesn’t happen, that takes a lot of hard work and passion and my role is to get the maximum out of the players for them to perform and deliver the Flanagan Cup back to The Downs and no matter what happens you will definitely see a performance from us on Sunday,” concluded Wall.