O Flatharta looking forward to challenge

February 01, 2006
When Paidi O Se's reign as Westmeath football manager ended last July, his able lieutenant Tomas O Flatharta was the obvious choice to succeed him. Here, the Kerry native outlines his aims for the coming season and explains why he'll be doing things differently to his illustrious predecessor. Newly installed Westmeath football manager Tomas O Flatharta has one very clear objective for 2006 and that's to restore winning ways. After the unprecedented high of a first Leinster championship success in 2004, Westmeath's fortunes plummeted to such an extend last year that they managed just two competitive wins against Donegal and Tipperary before being put out of their misery by lowly Clare in the All-Ireland qualifiers. In its end-of-year rankings, one national newspaper had Westmeath in 23rd place. In 2004, the same newspaper rated Westmeath as the sixth best team in the country. "We weren't the same team last year," Tomas admits. "Obviously 2004 was a special year as Westmeath had never won anything before at senior level and it was great to win the Leinster championship. I think a combination of things were to blame for our decline. "A few lads dropped off the panel from 2004. A few others probably thought that perhaps they might have got away with things a bit easier and may not have had to put in the same amount of effort. Then we picked up a lot of injuries along the way and, by the time we reached the Clare game, we were down six or seven players. "As well as that, a lot of teams copped onto the way we play and were better prepared for us. We were winners going into last year's championship and, of course, everybody wants to beat a winner and are going to raise their game. All those things conspired against us." O Flatharta isn't making any bold predictions about how Westmeath will fare in 2006, but he is nevertheless confident that they will show a big improvement on last year. "We hope to do very well in Division 2 and to get into the habit of winning again. I think it would be great for the morale of the team if we could get on a winning run again. Our aim is to get back into Division 1 and we'll have to win every game for that to happen. "After that then, we'll reassess everything going into the championship in May. We'll see where we are and, hopefully, have the bones of a good team put together at that stage. We'll have a good idea of who we want to play as regards our own team and we'll have a good crack at the championship," he says. Ever since the championship draw was made, Westmeath fans have been looking forward to the first round clash with neighbours Offaly on May 14 at Croke Park. Two years ago, Westmeath never looked back after beating the same opposition, but the Ballsbridge-based bank official knows that victory will be difficult to replicate. "There is no way we are looking any further than the Offaly game. Local derbies tend to take on a life of their own and anything could happen that day. Offaly will obviously be keen to get revenge for 2004 and we will have to be at our very best to beat them. "Since I came into this job, I have been setting short-term goals. I'm taking it one step at a time. My first objective was to put a backroom team in place, and once that was done, we held trials and picked a panel from that. The next step was to put a training programme in place and we did that. It's an ongoing thing really." Tomas and his selectors Paddy Collins and Frank Mescall have introduced several new faces to the panel this season and have also welcomed back former All-Star midfielder Rory O'Connell, whose inter-county retirement proved to be short-lived. He feels there is a good blend of youth and experience in the panel and admits that he learned a lot from the recent games against Carlow and Meath in the O'Byrne Cup. "We have freshened things up by bringing in 10 or 11 new players. All of them are eager to do well and that can only be a good thing. "While the panel is much-changed, we still have the nucleus of the Leinster championship winning team. Most of these guys are still in their mid-twenties with Damien Healy and Rory O'Connell being the only two around the 30-mark. "Rory's decision to come out of retirement was a massive boost and has given everyone a great lift. Instead of me going after him, he actually came to me and told me he had regained his appetite for the game and wanted to get back involved. I was only too happy to accommodate a player of his calibre and experience, although he has a lot of catching up to do in terms of fitness." He continues: "The O'Byrne Cup was a useful exercise for us. We played good attacking football against Carlow, but the Meath game showed that we still have a lot of work to do. I'd be concerned about the poor start we had against Meath, but encouraged by how well we played in the second half when down to 14 men." An unknown figure in these parts before being brought on board as a physical trainer/selector by Paidi O Se in October 2003, O Flatharta emerged in 2004 as a key figure in Westmeath's capture of the Leinster SFC for the first time. His arrival in the Lake County was in stark contrast to that of his former An Ghaeltacht club colleague O Se a few days earlier. While O Se's appointment was one of the year's biggest sporting stories, the former Kerry underage player slipped onto the scene almost unnoticed. However, it wasn't long before he made his presence felt. Although soft spoken, O Flatharta was a commanding presence on the training pitch and his attention to the areas of coaching, fitness and discipline contributed enormously to the midlanders' historic success. So when O Se stepped down after last July's tame championship surrender to Clare, O Flatharta was viewed as the natural successor and it didn't come as a surprise to anyone when he was handed the managerial reins. Despite his previous involvement and his familiarity with the players, Tomas feels as though he is starting afresh. "It's a new beginning in a lot of ways. I really enjoyed all the training sessions under Paidi, but now I'm answerable for basically everything and the buck stops with me. I'm responsible for everything now. If anything goes wrong, I have to take the blame for it. I've had to set everything in place and that was Paidi's role for the past couple of years. "It's a new experience for me and a step further from what I was doing last year. I feel honoured and delighted to manage an inter-county team. It's a big challenge for me. It's my first inter-county management job and it's a challenge that I'm really looking forward to." Tomas acknowledges that he learned a great deal from working alongside Paidi O Se, but will be taking a slightly different approach now that he's the main man. "I'll be doing things a bit differently, and that's not saying that Paidi wasn't doing things right. But I do think we need a different approach after the last two years. I learned an awful lot from working with Paidi - as did the players - and the worst part was that the time went too quick. "It was a pleasure to work with someone like that who has won everything in the game as a player and a manager. There was never a dull moment with Paidi around and if you couldn't learn from him, who could you learn from? "I've taken a step back from the training side of things to concentrate on management. I've basically handed over the physical training to Jason Cowman, who set out the gym programme for the players last year. Jason is a young Dublin guy, who's well qualified in that area and has worked with Leinster rugby. He's a very capable fellow and I'm confident he will have the lads in peak physical condition come the championship," he concludes.


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