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2000 Leinster Minor Football Final

Westmeath’s latest underage heroes ...

Westmeath’s phenomenal run of underage success continued on July 30 last when the Leinster Minor Football crown was captured in sensational fashion. Now, on the eve of their All-Ireland semi-final showdown with Mayo, Randal Scally reviews what has been a wonderful season thus far for Ambrose McGowan’s charges. 

The All-Ireland breakthrough of 1995 may have been more significant but in terms of satisfaction and utter sweetness, last month’s Leinster Minor Football Championship final victory over Dublin has no equal in the annals of Westmeath GAA.

Trailing by five points with less than 10 minutes remaining, Westmeath’s latest underage heroes staged what was arguably the greatest ever comeback witnessed in Croke Park to pip the hotly-fancied Metropolitans on a 2-9 to 1-10 scoreline. It was a sensational victory for the maroon-clad under 18s who displayed the tremendous never-say-die attitude that has become the hallmark of Westmeath underage teams in recent years.
The man who masterminded this latest Westmeath underage triumph is Ballymahon native Ambrose McGowan. A member of the teaching staff at Ardnagrath National School outside Drumraney, this is his second year in charge, having managed the Maryland intermediate side for two years previously. His future in inter-county management must have been in doubt after Westmeath suffered a humiliating first round defeat to Dublin last year but this season, with the assistance of selectors Eugene Dolan, Micheál Pheleamoinn and Ger Deegan, he has performed a small miracle by upsetting the Dubs and delivering a second Leinster Minor title to the midland county in five years.

When the Luke Dempsey-managed Westmeath under 21s were relieved of their All-Ireland title at the penulitmate round stage by Munster surprise-packets Limerick last April, it was generally felt in Lake County football circles that Westmeath would not garner any further silverware in 2000. The seniors were struggling while the minors were deemed to be a year too young. But, while the seniors made their championship exit at the hands of Dublin, the minors, almost unnoticed, qualified for the Leinster final. The rest, as they say, is history.

Backboned by no fewer than 10 members of last year’s all-conquering under 16 side (which won the Fr Manning Cup, the Gerry O’Reilly Tournament and the Leinster Tournament), Westmeath set out on the road to provincial glory by defeating Louth by 1-13 to 1-9 at Cusack Park on May 6. It was hardly an impressive Westmeath performance but, after three consecutive first round defeats in the minor grade, the result was all that mattered.
Full forward PJ Ward scored the first of his seven goals in the campaign inside the opening quarter but Louth pulled back a goal through Kevin McGeogh just before half-time to keep the issue in the melting pot. With Padraig Leavy and Gary Flanagan dominant in midfield, however, Westmeath did just enough to merit their four-point win.

If the Louth game had been tough, Westmeath couldn’t have had it any easier against Kilkenny at Nowlan Park two weeks later. The game proved to be a total mis-match with the maroons running out facile 10-23 to 0-6 winners. Undoubtedly the game’s highlight was PJ Ward’s haul of 5-5, believed to be a new scoring record. It could have been worse for the Cats had the Kilbeggan Shamrocks man not been substituted with nearly a quarter of an hour still to play.

With the Leaving Cert exams completed, Westmeath returned to action on June 25 with a date against great underage rivals Laois at Croke Park. Spectators had hoped to witness a re-run of the 1995 Leinster final which was only decided after three magnificent encounters. They got a replay alright but the first installment on this occasion was nothing to write home about.

The final score read 0-9 to 0-9, with Laois scoring four unanswered points in the last seven minutes to salvage a draw. Westmeath dominated the first half but only led by two points, 0-4 to 0-2, at the interval. The O’Moore County forced their way back onto level terms in the third quarter but Westmeath replied by moving four points clear. Still, Laois refused to give up the fight and were rewarded when Ross Munnelly sent over a dramatic equalizer in injury-time.

The replay was a much more entertaining contest, with Westmeath setting the pace from the off. Ambrose McGowan’s side played spellbinding football in the first 12 minutes, notching seven points without reply. However, they failed to score for the remainder of the half but still led by six points, 0-7 to 0-1, at the break.

Centre back and captain Alan Lambden increased Westmeath’s advantage within a minute of the restart but then came a stunning Laois comeback which saw them score 2-1 without reply to tie up proceedings. It was crisis time for Westmeath but, with substitutes Niall Kilmartin and Liam Reilly very much to the fore, they finished the stronger to emerge as deserving 0-14 to 2-4 winners.
Westmeath entered the Leinster final as complete outsiders. The reasons for this were obvious. Their opponents Dublin had blitzed Offaly, Wicklow and Meath en route to the decider and, rather ominously for Westmeath, had eight survivors from the side which took eventual All-Ireland champions Down to a replay in the previous year’s All-Ireland semi-final. The Dubs also had the backing of the Hill . . . always worth a couple of points in a game like this.
The midlanders were first to score through Colin Whyte but Dublin took a firm grip on proceedings when Conall Keaney fired to the net after nine minutes. The Dubs had moved into a 1-4 to 0-3 lead when PJ Ward scored a cracking goal to bring Westmeath back into contention. Ward added another point to leave the sides locked on 1-4 apiece at the interval.

Westmeath hopes appeared to suffer a shattering blow when corner back Donal O’Donoghue was dismissed after five minutes for an off-the-ball incident. Dublin duly took advantage of this, reeling off five points without reply and it could have been more.
Westmeath’s cause seemed a lost one with less than 10 minutes remaining but then everything changed. Tom Browne, one of five substitutes introduced by Westmeath, showed deft soccer skills to guide the ball past goalkeeper Vincent Galvin. This score proved the catalyst for an extraordinary Westmeath comeback which saw them turn a five-point deficit into a memorable two-point victory.
Points from Padraig Leavy and Ward levelled proceedings before further scores by substitutes Gary Flanagan and Gordon McDonnell put the transformed maroons in front. A shell-shocked Dublin pulled back a point from a free to leave just the minimum in it but in the third minute of injury-time, PJ Ward capped a superb individual display by notching the insurance point.

Westmeath joy was unbridled at the final whistle and it must have taken a week for the result to finally sink in. The midlanders had many heroes, none moreso than tigerish corner back Finian Newman who, despite carrying an injury into the game, gave the performance of his life in the face of wave upon wave of Dublin attacks. Afterwards, Alan Lambden had the honour of becoming only the fifth Westmeath captain to lift the Murray (Leinster Minor) Cup.

Ambrose McGowan’s charges now face a new challenge on Sunday next when they meet Mayo in the second of this year’s All-Ireland Minor semi-finals at Croke Park. Expectation levels have soared dramatically in the Lake County since the Leinster final and some supporters are even talking about Westmeath renewing acquaintances with the Tom Markham. However, Mayo are renowned for producing quality minor teams and the current crop should be no exception.

One thing is for sure, Westmeath will have their work cut out if they intend to continue on their remarkable odyssey.

The Westmeath team which won the Leinster Minor Football Championship final was: Eoin Farrell; Donal O’Donoghue, Kenneth Larkin, Finian Newman; Daniel McDermott, Alan Lambden (captain), Gary Glennon; Padraig Leavy (0-2), Niall Kilmartin; Nigel Adamson, Colin Whyte (0-1), Kieran Brennan; Liam Reilly, PJ Ward (1-4), Alan Hickey. 
Subs: Gary Flanagan (0-1) for Hickey, Tom Browne (1-0) for Whyte, Niall Duffy for Brennan, Gordon McDonnell (0-1) for Kilmartin, James Martin for Newman.