This article is part of the Cinderella Stories, a series looking at teams who came from nowhere to leave a lasting legacy. Here Gary Connaughton tells Garry Doyle all about Paídí Ó Sé’s genius and eccentricities as Westmeath finally won a Leinster title, 102 years after their first attempt at the prize.
IT IS OCTOBER 2003. The Irish economy has become the Celtic Tiger. Chelsea have become Chelski. Laois – under Mick O’Dwyer – have become Leinster champions.
And Paídí Ó Sé has become idle, Kerry and him no longer an item. A man called Des Maguire reads all about it in the Irish Independent. He sits down for dinner. He has a glass of wine. He thinks back to what happened earlier that week. “Six players came to us, saying the team was playing at 85 per cent, saying we needed a big name,” Maguire, then the vice-chairman of the Westmeath football board, says. He goes back to his newspaper, re-reads the article, considers the job O’Dwyer has done with Laois and thinks it is time Westmeath got their own Kerryman.
“There’s a job here if you want it,” he says to Ó Sé.
“Thanks for thinking of me, but I’m not gone yet,” Ó Sé tells him.
“Well, here’s my mobile. If you change your mind, let me know.”
This is a Friday evening. The following night, Maguire is preparing his Mullingar Shamrocks team for a minor championship match when his mobile rings. He doesn’t recognise the number.
Des, it’s Paídí.
With his mind on the game, Maguire isn’t thinking.
Paídí Ó F***ing Sé, that’s who. If that job is still going, I want it.
He’d arrive into Westmeath by helicopter and leave with history. Until 2004, Westmeath were one of three counties who had never won a provincial title. “You’re the boys who’ll change that,” Ó Sé told his new charges. “You’re the boys.”
The rumour was he was paid a fortune. “Not true,” Maguire says. “Money was never part of his motivation. ‘I don’t want any,’ Paídí told us, ‘and if I get asked once more, I am walking’. He never took a penny. The only thing he wanted was the players to be catered for.”
More than anything, after Kerry, he wanted to prove a point.
OUT BY EASTER
He could tell a story. “There’s a reason we have won so many All-Irelands in Kerry,” Ó Sé said to the Westmeath players early on. “We’ve plenty of sand, loads of lovely beaches to run on. You’re from a beautiful county, boys. No question about that. But you’ve no beach here.”
So he got them the next best thing, a purpose built sand-track to train on in Ballinagore. Better than that, he sourced the right man to coach them – Tomás Ó Flatharta. “He wanted us to be the fittest team in the country,” Gary Connaughton, who later became an All Star, said. “The sand-track was a psychological thing as much as a physical one. Sure look, a few Westmeath clubs saw what he was doing and put in their own sand-tracks but never won anything on the back of it. There was much more to Paídí’s management than a bit of sand and a bit of running.”
Indeed………. there was a lot of running.
Early in his tenure, he took them to Sunderland, then managed by Mick McCarthy, a friend of Ó Sé’s. Giddy with excitement when they stepped onto the club’s manicured training fields, a few of the players played headers and volleys. Ó Sé stepped in. “You didn’t come here to play that sport,” he scolded.
The weekend was an exercise in sussing people out. He gathered the players around him, told them he didn’t win eight All-Irelands by sitting on his ass. “You have to work to win things,” he said. They certainly worked that day. “The running didn’t seem to stop. Boys were throwing up, then going off on another sprint,” Connaughton recalls.
As a reward for their effort, they were given the evening off but told to be up at 7 for breakfast the next morning. Latecomers heard all about it from Ó Sé, the tone for his reign set early. They ran lap after lap after lap and the players quickly learned to turn up on time. Well, one guy didn’t. Later that season, he missed the start of a session after spending the morning on a golf course. Ó Sé immediately cut him from the panel.
That was how he operated, often tough, other times soft. He looked at Connaughton, a sub goalkeeper, and panicked when he heard Athlone Town were attempting to sign him. “How he knew they were after me, I’ll never know,” says Connaughton. “I’ll give you a chance,” he told me, ‘and when you get it, it is up to you then’.”
Connaughton stayed. After all, he’d been there in Enniskillen when Westmeath knocked the reigning All-Ireland champions, Derry, out of the National League in 1994; he’d seen the minors of 1995 win the county’s first football All-Ireland since the juniors in 1929; had followed the seniors around on their epic summer of 2001 and had been called into their panel in 2003. “I wanted a taste of that so badly, the crowds, the atmosphere.”
It would come. But first he had to prove himself. Graham Geraghty had poached a goal from a high ball in the ’03 championship. Cork, at the start of the ’04 league, had scored from a similar tactic. The time had come for Connaughton to be promoted from the bench. And the very next game, big Niall Sheridan shoved himself into position at the edge of the square.
But Connaughton got there before him. Jumped. Collected. Cleared.
Afterwards, Ó Sé didn’t say a word to him. Instead it was the Kerry man’s driver, Mick Price, who delivered the results of his appraisal. “Paídí says you can deal with high balls,” Price told him.
It was all he needed to hear.
Maguire also needed to hear some good news. His great coup was threatening to turn into a running joke, Westmeath having failed to win any of their opening six league games. The gag with the humourless punchline was that Ó Sé was going to be awarded an OBE – Out by Easter – unless Westmeath did something soon. “I thought there’d be egg on my face, worrying this was all going to backfire,” Maguire says.
It was 21 March. Easter was still three weeks away, Westmeath’s final league game scheduled for the week before. “You’d hear things, in work, Longford and Offaly people teasing you, telling you he was a waste of time,” Connaughton says. “Paídí didn’t care. ‘Winter football is not for us,’ he’d tell us. ‘But when the swallow comes, we’ll be singing’.
“He gathered us around and asked: ‘Who won last year’s league? Who won it the year before? Who cares? You’ll be judged on the championship. And we’ll be ready for that’.”
A relegation saving win over Mayo on the league’s final day boosted morale. “They’d nothing to play for and you could tell. There was a smell of beer off one of their players,” Connaughton recalls. “Still, we won. We were staying up.”
And they were about to take off on a magic carpet ride.
This is what an address brings. If you are a child born and brought up in Kerry, Cork, Tipperary, Kilkenny or Dublin then a Munster or Leinster final will be one of those dates that appear on the calendar like Christmas, Easter and New Year’s Eve. Between them, this elite group have won 377 provincial titles in hurling and football.
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And that’s just at senior level. So if you’re wondering why their underage success in the ’90s was such a big deal then bear the following facts in mind. Until their 1995 minors came of age, Westmeath had only ever played in three Leinster senior finals in either code.
So when the chance came to win something, they made sure they took it. Shane Deering, whose father, Shay, had captained the Irish rugby team, displayed some of his old man’s tendencies as he hauled down the Derry captain, Johnny McBride, in the dying seconds of the 1995 minor final. West of Clonard no one was getting sanctimonious about fair play. Deering was a hero.
“Finally, finally we’d won an All-Ireland,” Connaughton says. “From there on, every kid in the county believed we could achieve things.”
By 1999, they were winning another All-Ireland, this time at Under 21 level, a bumper crowd there to see them win Leinster on the kind of rain-soaked day ‘that,’ according to Gerry Buckley, a reporter and lifelong Westmeath fan, ‘even Theresa Mannion wouldn’t have dared come out to report on’. They’d go on to defeat Paul Galvin and Tomás Ó Sé’s Kerry in the All-Ireland, a fan blasting a Joe Dolan CD out of his car stereo outside the Davin Arms as the post-match party began in Limerick. Suddenly, there was reason to believe, unlike the 1970s when the Westmeath seniors played just 12 games of championship football, winning just twice. The ‘80s – four wins and one draw from 15 championship games – and ’90s, seven wins from 19 games – were not much better.
But something was building. Luke Dempsey, architect of their underage success, stepped up to the seniors and did a fine job. They had an eight-game summer in 2001, the same number of championship games they played between 1971 and 1977. But they blew a nine-point lead in the 2001 All-Ireland quarter-final and then threw it away against Meath in ’03. Something was missing.
ALI AND WEDDING BELLS
The answer was luck. Dempsey got none but Ó Sé got a slice of it against Offaly in the Leinster preliminary round. “Everyone swears one of our points went wide,” Connaughton says. “Well, you need a bit of good fortune. For years we had none.”
Spring had gone, summer had arrived and it wasn’t just the season that had changed. Ó Sé’s personality had too. “When it came to May, he was always the first on the pitch; soloing the ball. The energy he exuded; he had us buzzing.”
“We can do this,” Ó Sé told them. “You are in the best shape of your life.”
In the Leinster preliminary round, they beat Offaly for the first time in over half a century.
Dublin was next. “We all bought into what he had to say,” Connaughton recalls. “Confidence and morale built up week by week. He had an aura. He’d pull a lad aside, ‘you’re doing great,’ he’d say. He’d ram it home in the dressing room. ‘Only three counties have never won a provincial title, by the end of this summer, it’ll be two’. He’d tell us about meeting Muhammad Ali, Ali telling him the road to success was always under construction. He told us not to fear anyone – even Dublin.”
Westmeath hadn’t defeated the Dubs in the championship since ’67. They won this one by two points.
Dublin,” Connaughton reflects, “at Croker, the crowds, the noise, the setting, the Garda escort, the ‘come on you boys in blue’ chants; Alan Brogan and Sherlock on fire; David Mitchell changing things for us in midfield; John Keane starring; Paul Conway scoring; hearing that final whistle; seeing friends in the crowd after the game; punching the air at them; the roar that followed …… man, you’ll never forget that day.”
Ó Sé – normally a cajoler – was extraordinarily calm.
“Enjoy your night lads, but don’t go mad,” he said.
They didn’t want to. In the pub that night, fans were full of chat, remember-whens and what-about-that-point. “You’d a few pints and that was it.”
The focus was Wexford. “Every old banger in Westmeath was sprayed maroon and white,” Connaughton says. They were on the up. Even Mattie Forde, playing havoc with their defence, couldn’t derail them.
Another win and they were on their way. Laois, Leinster final. It was 55 years since Westmeath’s last one.
“Take the week off work,” Connaughton’s father suggested to him.
“Be in the paper after the game, not before it,” was Ó Sé’s advice to the players.
Connaughton went to work as normal and was caught on the hop for an interview.
“I was confident. You felt good. We all did.”
“Don’t go to the pub,” Ó Sé told them afterwards. “Go straight home. We’ll win it next week.”
The replay created a problem. One of their biggest fans was due to get married. A friend was at the service, tasked with supplying the groom with regular updates. Between them, the friend and the groom communicated through a series of elaborate hand gestures, thumbs up signals meaning Westmeath were leading, thumbs down if Laois had pressed ahead.
Across the aisle, there was nearly a scene – a grumpy member of the bridal party wondering if the groom was suffering cold feet. Subtly, a couple of guests disappeared from the church for the closing moments of the match – and the service. After 102 years, this was something they didn’t want to miss.
Back at Croke Park, Ó Sé asked his players how much did they want this. “What I remember,” Connaughton says, “is that the first day Mick O’Dwyer was visible during the parade but for the replay, Paídí positioned himself in such a spot that he could stare at each of us individually as we walked past.”
You’d have sworn he’d a hypnotic effect on them. “Do you know what he had?” Connaughton says. “It’s as simple as this. He had a way of making us more confident.”
It worked. That night the cup spent the night in Mullingar’s Greville Arms.
If you were a tourist who wasn’t aware of the nuances of Ireland’s county boundaries then you’d struggle to notice any difference in the terrain from Kilbeggan to Tullamore where Westmeath stops and Offaly starts. Similarly, when you go beyond Streete towards Granard, the tarmacked road doesn’t change its markings when you leave the county and head into Longford. Cross a bridge in Finea and it takes you to Cavan; cross one in Kinnegad and you are into Meath.
Yet even if the land looks the same, it doesn’t stop any county from having its own identity. Westmeath has had that since 1543, when the Parliament of Ireland passed the Counties of Meath and Westmeath Act. To the people who live here, it is so much more than a name written on envelopes to help An Post deliver its letters.
The 2004 Leinster championship didn’t awaken some dormant emotion; it simply intensified a pride that was already there, an awareness that their place was a special one. More than that, though, for many of the migrants who had recently moved into the county’s new estates, it provided a sense of belonging – a this-is-us moment. And for those who’d lived in the county all their life, whose lives were wrapped up in the county’s GAA scene, 2004 was unforgettable. “Thinking about that year now, you actually stop and say to yourself, did that happen?” says Maguire asks, a man who remembers plenty of false dawns. “We’d never experienced anything like this.”
“They were the best days of my life,” Connaughton adds, equating their Leinster title to an All-Ireland. “Greece won Euro 2004 in June. No one thought it could be done but in sport, there is always a surprise some year somewhere. Sport doesn’t have a script written for it.”
But that year it did – as a Kerry author put the final words on a Midlands fairy-tale.