Confidence the big issue for Flanagan
30 April 2011
Trying to rebuild Westmeath's shattered confidence after two disastrous seasons is as much a priority for new football manager Pat Flanagan as putting a new team in place is.
Could the tide be finally turning for Westmeath football? In the space of four days in the last week of February, vital wins were recorded by the under 21 and senior teams to lift some of the gloom that has enveloped the county over the past two years.
An impressive 10-point victory over Laois in the first round of the Leinster under 21 championship was followed by a thrilling comeback win over Tipperary in Division 3 of the National League. Remarkably, the latter victory was the Lake County's first in the National League since they defeated Dublin by five points to land the Division 2 title in April 2008.
For Pat Flanagan, who has been handed the task of reviving Westmeath's fortunes over the next two years, the 2-12 to 2-9 triumph in Semple Stadium was a massive weight of his shoulders. After a positive start to the season which saw Westmeath beat Dublin and DIT, and run Kildare close in the O'Byrne Cup, an eight-point reversal at the hands of Louth and an uninspiring draw against Cavan in their opening two National League games left the county in despondent mood once again.
But now that the long-awaited National League victory has been secured, the Westmeath manager expects his team to grow in confidence and improve immeasurably from here on.
"We badly needed that win to get our confidence going again," he says.
"I think it will bring the players on 10-15 per cent. There is no doubt that the long losing streak which everyone talked about had got to them, but the monkey is off their back now and they will be able to express themselves better in the coming weeks and months.
"From watching those guys in training and knowing what they are capable of, it was only a matter of time before they got back to winning ways. The performances against Louth and Cavan weren't a reflection of what was being done on the training pitch. Hopefully this win will get us back up and running."
Flanagan defends the defensive system he deployed in the early part of the season, which was not unlike that used by former manager Tomas O Flatharta three years ago when Westmeath captured the Division 2 title and were unlucky to lose to both Dublin and Tyrone in the championship.
"People are saying we were negative by playing an extra defender, but in the game against Louth, they had 13 players behind the ball, and that was when they were playing with the wind!
"I think people are making too much of it. We are trying to devise a system that will suit the players we have at our disposal. The system worked for us against Dublin and DIT. When you go 16 games (in the National League) without a win, you are always going to be extra-cautious. Now that we've ended that losing run, we have a different outlook and I don't think we'll be as defensively-minded from here on."
Having had just six weeks to prepare Westmeath for last year's Leinster championship when he was appointed manager on an interim basis following Brendan Hackett's resignation, Flanagan is relishing the chance the work with what is essentially a new group of players over the next two years. At this stage, the only survivors from the 2004 Leinster winning team are Gary Connaughton, Fergal Wilson, Dessie Dolan, Denis Glennon and Michael Ennis, who is recovering from shoulder surgery.
"Apart from restoring confidence, the biggest challenge is to rebuild the team," explains the Clara man whose management team comprises Larry Giles, Tom Darcy (both selectors) and Trevor Smullen (physical trainer and selector).
"We're trying to blend the younger players in with the older lads. We have six under 21s involved with the seniors at the moment and there are definitely others from the under 21 team capable of making the step-up in the short-term as well.
"We've started out this year with a fresh panel after we brought back some older players for last year's championship. Personally speaking, I'm delighted to have been given this opportunity to put my own stamp on the team after having just six weeks to do so last year.
"It's a huge challenge, but one that I'm relishing nevertheless. Success won't happen overnight - we are starting from a very low base - and the supporters have to be mindful of that. It would be unrealistic to expect us to rise from the ashes all of the sudden."
Flanagan has expressed satisfaction with the draw his team has been handed for this year's Leinster championship. With big guns Dublin, Meath and Kildare on the other side of the draw, the Lake County have been presented with a glorious opportunity to get back to their first Leinster final since 2004.
"It's a favourable draw, but Wexford, Offaly and Louth will be looking at it the same way. We're playing the winners of Wexford and Offaly in the quarter-final and if we can get the confidence going between now and then, we'll be a match for either of them," he says.
"We would love to get another crack at Louth after what happened last year and, indeed, in this year's National League game. It's a good draw which gives us a realistic chance of reaching a Leinster final. The Leinster championship may be better suited to us than the National League because we aren't the biggest of teams, but we do have pacey players who can thrive on the harder ground."
Pat is delighted to have secured the services of former county stalwarts Larry Giles and Tom Darcy as his selectors, as well as his work colleague (at Mullingar Community Training Centre) and ex-Longford star Trevor Smullen as his physical trainer.
"When I was appointed manager, my whole idea was to have as many football people around me as I could. Larry, Tom and Trevor fitted the bill perfectly. The idea was to have a defender (Darcy) and an attacker (Giles) as selectors. Trevor played with Longford for 11 years, he knows what's required at this level and is also a qualified physical trainer. He has also trained his home club of Ballymahon, so he has all the credentials that are needed."
The former Clara and Tyrrellspass manager admits that there is a huge difference between managing at club and inter-county level.
"I'm only in this job a few months, but I've already found it to be far more time-consuming than at club level. Between training and meeting the senior and under 21 teams, you're gone nearly every night and there is always a match at the weekend. The ordinary man on the street doesn't realise the amount of work that goes into it behind-the-scenes.
"As much as it's time-consuming, I love the buzz you get from managing and I'll be doing my utmost to bring success to Westmeath over the next three years."
Pat Flanagan Factfile
Recently turned 50, Pat was appointed interim Westmeath football manager in April 2010 and full-time manager in August 2010. He was also appointed Westmeath under 21 manager for 2011.
He had previously served as a Westmeath selector under Tomas O Flatharta in 2009 after managing Tyrrellspass to back-to-back senior championships in 2006 and 2007, and a Leinster club final appearance in the latter year. He also guided Tyrrellspass to an under 21 13-a-side championship success in 2005.
Prior to that, he managed his native Clara to an Offaly senior championship in 2003, and to two minor championships in 1995 and 1996. He also had a successful spell in charge of Kilbeggan Shamrocks, delivering an intermediate championship to the south Westmeath club in 2000. He won a second Dowling Cup with Clara in 2009 and guided them to another county final appearance last year when they lost to eventual Leinster finalists Rhode by a point. In all, he has won eight major championships as a manager.
During his playing days, Pat captained Offaly at every underage level and won under 14, under 16, minor, under 21 and senior medals with Clara. He captained Clara to their first Offaly senior championship in 27 years in 1991, and won a second senior medal in 1993 before retiring after Clara's defeat in the 1995 county final.
Of Westmeath parentage (his father hailed from Rochfortbridge and his mother from Delvin), Pat was the only one of five girls and three boys to be born outside the Lake County.