The Downs end long wait

May 28, 2004
Twenty-three years of famine and frustration finally came to an end for The Downs last October when they were crowned senior football champions for an eighth time. Here, we look back on their path to glory. The 2003 Westmeath senior football championship will be remembered for the re-emergence of The Downs as the county's top team. While always a formidable force in the championship, The Downs were not among the leading contenders for Flanagan Cup glory at the outset of the year. In fact, at least five teams were rated ahead of them, including the "big three" of Garrycastle, Athlone and Mullingar Shamrocks. But displaying levels of fitness, skill and determination that their rivals failed to match, The Downs surprised even their most ardent supporters by landing the Flanagan Cup for an eighth time. The fact that it was their first senior triumph since 1980 when they defeated Kilbeggan in a low-scoring affair made it all the more noteworthy. Like the great team which captured county titles in 1968, '69, '70, '72 and '74, the 2003 model performed with no little amount of flair and passion. All season, a tireless defence suffocated the life out of their opponents, while the midfield partnership of Barry Conroy and Brendan Murtagh was easily the most effective around. Up front, Tommy Cleary and James Conroy provided the bulk of the firepower with both finishing in the top three of highest scorers in the championship. The five-strong management team comprising Tommy Kelly, Ray Smyth, Seamus Conroy, Brian Murtagh and Aiden McGuire also played a major part in the success. Smyth, in particular, was lauded for his role in ensuring The Downs were the fittest team in the county. The black and ambers could also claim to be the most consistent team in the county, avoiding defeat in their eight championship outings. They also reached the All-County League Division 1 and Feis Cup finals, but were narrowly defeated in both by Garrycastle and Coralstown/Kinnegad respectively. The Downs set out on their championship trail on May 18 when they defeated newly-promoted Tubberclair, who themselves would make a major impact on the championship. Having played with the assistance of a strong wind in the first half, Tubberclair held a 0-8 to 0-4 lead at the interval. But The Downs clawed their way back into contention on the restart and in the final quarter, they outscored their Glasson opponents by 0-4 to 0-1 to clinch a 0-14 to 0-11 victory. Five weeks later, Ray Smyth's charges produced a storming second half recovery to earn a 0-10 to 1-7 draw with Mullingar Shamrocks at Cusack Park. Shamrocks had the better of the first half exchanges and, aided by a fine goal from Eric Smith, led by 1-5 to 0-3 at half-time. Following the change of ends, however, The Downs roared back with points from Tommy Cleary, Sean Loughlin and James Conroy. Cleary eventually brought the sides level before Barry Loughrey restored Shamrocks' slender advantage. Then, with time almost up, Cleary pointed again to secure a share of the spoils for the black and ambers. The Downs regained winning ways when they powered to a 1-16 to 0-8 victory over struggling St. Mary's on June 28. St. Mary's opened brightly, but The Downs gradually began to exert dominance and a goal from James Conroy helped them to a 1-6 to 0-5 interval advantage. In the second half, it was one-way traffic with The Downs adding a further 10 points to their impressive tally. In the absence of Tommy Cleary, Keith Shanley grabbed the headlines by finishing as top scorer with 0-6 to his credit. The Downs made certain of qualification for the knock-out stages when they recorded an even bigger win, 1-16 to 0-7, over St. Malachy's at St. Loman's on July 13. At half-time, the match was as good as over with The Downs leading by 1-10 to 0-3, the goal being accounted for by James Conroy. By the end of the third quarter, the black and ambers were 15 points to the good and it was only in the closing stages that St. Malachy's managed to put some respectability on the scoresheet. Although they had already booked their place in the knock-out stages, The Downs knew going into their final group game against 2002 county finalists Castledaly that a win would put them straight through to the semi-final. There was also a great deal at stake for Castledaly who needed to win to keep their championship hopes alive. But, after a closely contested first half - at the end of which The Downs held a 0-6 to 0-4 lead - Ray Smyth's charges found an extra gear to pull away for a 0-13 to 0-6 victory. Castledaly actually opened the second half scoring through Sean Connell, but it was all The Downs thereafter with points from James Conroy, Tommy Cleary, Barry Conroy and Brendan Murtagh putting the result beyond doubt long before the finish. The Downs renewed their rivalry with Mullingar Shamrocks in the penultimate round on August 24 at Cusack Park. Conquerors of reigning champions Garrycastle in the quarter-final, Shamrocks entered the tie as firm favourites, but they came a cropper against a well-organised The Downs team who qualified for their first Flanagan Cup decider in 17 years on a 0-13 to 0-7 scoreline. In a poor game, the black and ambers took the lead for the first time in the 17th minute when James Conroy edged them 0-3 to 0-2 in front. Eddie Casey and Aidan Lyons replied with scores for the town side, but unanswered points from the Conroy brothers saw The Downs lead by 0-6 to 0-4 at the interval. The winners stretched their advantage to 0-8 to 0-5 on the resumption before Casey again reduced the gap to two points. However, The Downs dominated the remainder of the game with further scores from the Conroys, Joe Corroon, Sean Loughlin and John Smyth sealing their place in the final. Athlone, who had also come through the championship unbeaten, provided the opposition for The Downs in a traditional county final on September 21. An agonising defeat looked to be on the cards for The Downs after Athlone wing back David O'Neill had punched the only goal with two minutes of stoppage-time played. However, The Downs worked the ball down the field and after James Conroy had engineered a free 20 metres out but close to the right-hand sideline, Tommy Cleary showed nerves of steel to kick the equalizer and earn his side a 0-9 to 1-6 draw. In what was a dogged but tense affair, the sides swapped scores throughout the first half before a 33rd minute point from Cleary gave The Downs a 0-4 to 0-3 lead at the break. With John Smyth winning a lot of possession at midfield, The Downs enjoyed the better of the second half exchanges and points from Cleary and the impressive Conroy had them two clear as the game ticked into injury-time. Then, against the run of play, a Joe Fallon '45' caused panic in The Downs' goalmouth and O'Neill was on hand to fist the ball to the net. But Cleary forced a replay with his last-gasp equalizer. That replay didn't take place until October 12 but it was worth the wait for supporters of the black and ambers who could scarcely contain their delight after their side's richly deserved 2-11 to 1-9 victory. The replay was of a much higher quality than the drawn encounter with goals from Keith Shanley and James Conroy late in the first half proving decisive. Athlone fans will point to the dismissal of midfielder Rory O'Connell for a second bookable offence midway through the second half as the game's turning point. The former All-Star has just kicked a superb long-range point to put the Shannonsiders on level terms, but they fell away badly following his dismissal. The first half was a lively affair with brilliantly-executed goals from Shanley and Conroy in added time giving The Downs a 2-5 to 0-5 lead at the break. But Athlone stormed back into contention on the restart and, helped by a wonderful goal from Neil Dolan, had restored parity by the 43rd minute. However, the dismissal of O'Connell had a crucial bearing on the outcome as The Downs reeled off unanswered points per Conor Carley, Paul Shanley and Tommy Cleary in the closing stages to end their long wait for senior championship honours. Afterwards, amid scenes of unbridled excitement and joy, the Flanagan Cup was fittingly presented to The Downs captain Shane Deering by club stalwart and President of Westmeath GAA, Christy Whelehan. The Downs team which ended a 23-year wait for senior championship success was: Ciaran McCormack; David O'Reilly, Sean O'Leary, Steven Cleary; Conor Carley, Darren Devine, Sean Loughlin; Barry Conroy, Brendan Murtagh; Shane Deering, John Smyth, Paul Shanley; Tommy Cleary, James Conroy, Keith Shanley. Sub used: Joe Corroon.

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