Double champions

February 28, 2006
The Downs proved themselves to be a class apart in 2005 by winning both the senior football championship and the All-County League Division 1 title. Here, we review a hugely successful year for Ray Smyth's charges. Displaying the fierce determination and hunger that have always been associated with the club, The Downs landed their ninth senior football title on October 9 last when they defeated the holders Garrycastle by 1-10 to 0-10 in a highly-charged county final at Cusack Park. Having gone 23 years without a senior success, The Downs have now won two of the last three championships and given the relative youth of this team, they could yet emulate the achievements of the great side that dominated the Westmeath club scene in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Garrycastle were hot favourites to win their fourth title in five years, but revelling in the underdog role, The Downs produced a power-packed display to overwhelm the champions whose much-vaunted attack could only muster a solitary point from play over the 60 minutes. And, as if to underline their superiority over the rest, The Downs clinched a league and championship double a fortnight later when they defeated St. Loman's in their final All-County League Division 1 game. As in 2003, the contribution of physical trainer Ray Smyth to The Downs' success was immense. Speaking moments after Barry Conroy lifted the Flanagan Cup, Smyth recalled how a crushing defeat to Garrycastle in the Paidi O Se Tournament in Ventry the previous February had provided his side with the motivation to become Westmeath football kingpins once again. "I told the players that we'd beat Garrycastle in the county final. We wanted to play them today because they made little of us in Ventry. We trained 133 nights for this final and nothing was going to stop us," he said. Team manager Tommy Kelly, who was assisted in the selection duties by Brian Murtagh, Seamus Conroy and Paul Rowan, also pointed to the Ventry experience as being the key to The Downs' success. "We started off on January 29 and went hard at it. We went to the Paidi O Se tournament at the end of February and while it may sound glamorous, it was a tough, hard week's training down there. "We set our stall out back then. We were happy to get Garrycastle at some stage in the championship, semi-final or final, and we got them today and did the business, although there was only a kick of the ball in it." The Downs set out on the road to glory with a hard-fought 0-9 to 0-8 victory over neighbours Coralstown/Kinnegad at Cusack Park on May 8. Desperate to make a winning start to the championship after failing to reach the knock-out stages in 2004, The Downs turned a 0-3 to 0-4 deficit into a 0-6 to 0-4 lead before half-time and maintained a two-point advantage for much of the second half before a late effort from Fergal Dardis left them clinging on for a narrow win. A last-minute goal from Brendan Murtagh gave The Downs a dramatic 1-11 to 1-9 victory over St. Loman's in their second match of the group stage. The Mullingar side looked to have done enough when a David Windsor free gave them a 1-9 to 0-10 lead with two minutes remaining. But despite having David O'Reilly sent off midway through the second half, The Downs finished strongly with a fisted goal from Murtagh edging them in front before Tommy Cleary sealed the two points when converting a free in injury-time. The Downs' only defeat of the campaign came against Tyrrellspass in round three. On a balmy evening at Cusack Park, the black and ambers wilted in a dramatic finale. Boosted by a James Conroy goal eight minutes after the restart, The Downs led by two points as the game ticked into stoppage time. But Tyrrellspass scored an unanswered 1-2 in the closing stages to snatch an unlikely 1-9 to 1-6 victory. Ray Smyth's charges quickly put that disappointment behind them by brushing aside the challenge of Tubberclair on a 1-14 to 0-6 scoreline. In a hard-hitting encounter, The Downs built up a 0-9 to 0-3 lead at the interval, and the result was already decided when James Conroy scored the only goal with 10 minutes remaining. One week later, The Downs claimed top spot in Division 1 and in the process became the first team to reach the semi-finals thanks to a 0-13 to 1-7 victory over Athlone. The black and ambers conceded a rare goal in the opening stages when Sid Allen finished a loose ball to the net. The Shannonsiders were 1-3 to 0-4 in front after 20 minutes, having survived a missed penalty attempt from Tommy Cleary. But despite this miss, The Downs finished the first half strongly with unanswered points from Barry Conroy, Noel Molloy, James Conroy and Stephen Devine giving them a 0-8 to 1-3 lead at the break. Athlone drew level within minutes of the restart, but The Downs steadied themselves and pulled away for a three-point win to end the Shannonsiders' interests in the championship. Following a two-month break from competitive action, The Downs squared up to Castledaly in the semi-final on September 18. Castledaly, who had overcome Tyrrellspass in the quarter-final, were determined to get back to the final after losing to Garrycastle in 2004, but they failed to cope with the twin threat of James Conroy and Tommy Cleary who scored 0-10 between them in a 0-13 to 1-8 victory for the black and ambers. The Downs were full value for their 0-6 to 0-4 interval lead, despite the concession of a 19th minute penalty which Castledaly corner forward JP Casey drove low and wide. The southerners produced a brilliant start to the second half, scoring a great goal through wing forward Paul Kelly, and two further points without reply to leave The Downs playing catch-up. After Cleary had cut the leeway, The Downs suffered a major setback when midfielder Noel Molloy broke his ankle in an accidental clash which was to rule him out of the county final, just as in 2003. But despite facing such adversity, The Downs were still able to grind out the win. Two pointed frees from Barry Conroy had left just the minimum between the sides before his brother James kicked over the equalizing point in the 49th minute. A short time later, Tommy Cleary set up big midfielder Brendan Murtagh for the lead point, and although JP Casey levelled for Castledaly, injury-time scores from Cleary and James Conroy made sure of The Downs' place in the final. Despite being rank outsiders and having corner back Sean Loughlin sent off for a second yellow card offence 11 minutes into the second half, The Downs outfought and outplayed Garrycastle for long periods of the decider and were never troubled after Stephen Cleary scored the only goal on the stroke of half-time. Tommy Cleary, who starred in Westmeath's All-Ireland minor success of a decade ago, gave a masterful display for the winners by landing 0-7, while receiving good support in attack from James Conroy and the tireless John Smyth. By contrast, Garrycastle were almost totally reliant on Dessie Dolan who accounted for all but one of their scores. The All-Star forward's county colleagues David O'Shaughnessy and Gary Dolan never got into the game and the signs had been ominous for the Athlone side when they trailed by four points at the interval, despite having wind advantage in the first half. It was tit for tat in the early stages with Cleary and Dolan notching four frees between them in the opening 10 minutes. The challengers then enjoyed a purple patch which yielded two more frees from Cleary and the opening score from play by James Conroy in the 20th minute. Three unanswered frees from Dolan levelled the scoring before The Downs made a decisive breakthrough in the 30th minute when a high ball in by Cleary was flicked to the net by corner forward Stephen Devine. Cleary immediately followed up with his fifth point of the half to make it 1-6 to 0-5 at the interval. Cleary increased The Downs' advantage from a '45' just after the restart before a brace of Dolan frees left a goal between the sides. After Cleary restored the underdogs' four-point lead, Garrycastle registered their only point from play through substitute Paddy Mulvihill in the 39th minute. But not even the dismissal of Loughlin could unsettle The Downs, who went four clear again when Conroy pointed. Another Dolan free reduced the deficit, only for Conroy to reply with an excellent score in the 57th minute. Dolan left a goal in it again in the second minute of injury-time, but the team in black and amber defended resolutely to lift the Flanagan Cup for the ninth time. The Downs team which defeated Garrycastle in the SFC final was: Conleth McCormack; Sean Loughlin, Seamus O'Leary, Stephen Cleary; Conor Carley, Darren Devine, Greg Crowley; Joe Corroon, Brendan Murtagh; Luke Folan, John Smyth, Barry Conroy; Tommy Cleary (0-7), James Conroy (0-3), Stephen Devine (1-0). Subs: David O'Reilly for Folan and Keith Shanley for Smyth.

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