Westmeath's passion rewarded with promotion
By Cian O’Connell
Few are better placed than Johnny Greville to understand and appreciate what Westmeath accomplished on Sunday.
Greville is a busy man at the moment – combining a selector role under Joe Quaid with management duties of the Westmeath Under 20 hurlers and Senior Camogie teams.
It might be manic, but Greville wouldn’t have it any other way and the thought of aristocratic counties travelling to Mullingar for Allianz Hurling League Division One games next year brings joy and anticipation.
Westmeath’s last stint in the top tier back in the late 1980s remains etched in Greville’s memory. “I was only a nipper, maybe six or seven years of age when my father was playing in Division One,” Greville recalls.
“I remember them days, in the dressing room you had Matty Conaty, Billy Boyle, who were in the backroom team on those great days in 1986 and 1987 and 1988. Economical circumstances cost us back then, a lot of quality hurlers went away. Things are different now. We have quality within the county, it is just about making sure we get the best out of them so we can compete in Division One.”
Quaid’s influence runs deep according to Greville, who credits the former Limerick custodian for his innovative approach. “I have to say he is a breath of fresh air,” Greville admits.
“He is not the atypical inter-county manager that comes out with the same rhetoric the whole time. He says what he feels, like myself he speaks from the heart. He has people with him - it is just a fantastic bunch, a really enjoyable bunch to work with.
“We have a nice environment created amongst ourselves, the management team has a great environment which is transpiring on to the pitch with victories.”
That Division One status has been secured for 2020 means so much for the development of the game in Westmeath. A significant step has been taken.
“It has, I'm the Under 20 manager as well as being involved with Joe in the senior set-up,” Greville adds. “We were down in Thurles on the Saturday morning playing Liam Cahill's Under 20s in a challenge match. That is what we are aspiring to do.
“We are getting the Under 20s together for the last eight weeks, we put up a great show and were only beaten by eight points down in Dr Morris Park on Saturday morning. To be able to tell them lads that their aspirations and goals could rise considerably when you have Tipperary and Limerick and Galway and maybe Kilkenny or Cork coming to Mullingar.
“For the development of hurling in Westmeath it is vitally important because our new Chairman Billy Foley is putting in a massive amount of work. He is trying to change the way things are being done by really looking at the development of the game within the county at club level as well as county level.”
Aonghus Clarke has been involved as a player with Westmeath for seven years. Promising days and painful losses have been experienced, but the fact that the midlanders are guaranteed five matches in the top flight is critical.
“We see that as the biggest thing for us,” Clarke says. “We have played teams before, but I suppose they can end up being a one off because they are usually in the qualifiers and you are out then.
“We haven't actually won any of them, so we have usually only been getting one crack a year. This way now we will have a solid group of games, we will have five games and we will be aiming to try to win the Joe McDonagh at some stage. If we could get into Leinster we would be up there at that level all the time.”
Throughout much of the past decade Westmeath have examined the resolve of illustrious opponents in the qualifiers coming close to securing notable scalps with Seamus Qualter, Brian Hanley, and Michael Ryan in charge.
“Yeah, we have been there or thereabouts and the teams before us,” Clarke acknowledges. “The likes of Qualter and Hanley before I was involved they did have some good rattles.
“It is just more about getting into Division One to get that consistency to compete at the level which we think might be able to bring us on even a bit more.
“We have done well and we have competed so far, but it has been on a more ad hoc basis where once a year we get a crack at them. It is great to get it on a more consistent basis so we might be able to bring ourselves on another bit with that.”
Greville stresses that Westmeath have traditionally been able to summon gritty displays in the qualifiers, but the League triumph over Kerry carried relevance. “Again it is something Westmeath have always done,” Greville remarks about being gutsy at times in the qualifiers.
“The key thing Westmeath hasn't done is to come out of Division 2A for the progression up to the next level. We have really put it up to the Wexfords, Limericks, Galways, Kilkenny, and even in Brian Hanley's time we were a point up against Waterford at half-time when Michael Ryan was over Waterford at that stage.
“There was a great crowd in Mullingar. They were all signs of things that could come, but when it came down to the nuts and bolts and grind out wins against teams that would be perceived to be a bit below that is where we found difficulty.
“We were able to raise our game for the big teams which was great, but we still ended up in Division 2A at the end of the day.
“On Sunday that was put to bed and those 32 or 33 years of hurt is gone now. We have a huge year to look forward to next year as well as the Joe McDonagh Cup coming.”
Westmeath were beaten finalists in the inaugural staging of the Joe McDonagh Cup with Clarke highlighting how important that competition is.
“The Joe McDonagh tournament is brilliant really, it is a great thing the GAA are after setting up,” Clarke remarks.
“The teams in it are completely at a level. It is very even, there is the reward of getting up to the Leinster and even if you get to the final, like we did last year, you get into the qualifiers for the All Ireland. So you do have the carrot at the end of it where you get to play the top opposition. The teams are all very even so it is a very good competition - the Joe McDonagh.”
Suddenly the future glimmers with promise for Westmeath, who enter the summer brimful of hope and confidence. The first target of the campaign has been realised which pleases Greville. “It does bring a lot of memories back,” Greville acknowledges.
“Conor Shaw, who played on Sunday, his dad was playing too. Jogger Doyle his dad was playing, we have so many links with the Clarkes, the Castletown lads, the Clonkill lads and all the players from all the clubs.
“You have so many historical links which is fantastic, it is great to see. Just for myself to be part of the management team with three brothers playing, to win a Division 2A which they have been itching to do for years, to finally achieve that was a really proud moment for myself, my family, and my club.”
That passion married with purpose enables Greville to contribute so much to the maroon and white cause.
“I suppose I'm a glutton for punishment,” Greville laughs about his involvement with three inter-county Westmeath outfits.
“I couldn't go to the Camogie game against Wexford in the last round of the League in Division Two. Again I have a great backroom team in that with Darren McCormack, a past Westmeath hurler, Frank Mullin and a brother of mine, Jimmy, so I have a great support system there too.
“The girls understood that Division One was beckoning for the hurlers and hopefully the Camogie can aspire to that because we were beaten in a Division Two Final last year. They got a win on Sunday, so we are in a quarter-final so it was a good day all round for Westmeath.
“It is something I enjoy, I'm very passionate about it. People ask me how do I do it, but I do it because I enjoy it. I love it as my pastime, especially when you get it back from the players. That is when it matters most, especially with the Camogie players and the hurlers.
“The commitment and the effort and the amount they put in is just phenomenal. Nobody really knows until you are involved in it the sacrifices that are made and the things you do. That makes it a lot easier to facilitate these players, to make it the best environment possible for them.”
Greville has assisted Quaid, who has instilled belief into Westmeath where a desire for hurling endures. “There is massive passion and massive pride in Westmeath hurling,” Greville states. “The way Ennis is set-up we were brought out for a little bit of a warm up at the back of the pitch we met a few supporters on the way in which was nice to do. I got a sense from the supporters how much it meant to them.
“These are people I would remember back 30 years ago that were following the great Westmeath team from then. They are still around and still following this team. You can feel the passion from them they wanted the team to get across the line because they wanted Division One hurling.
“We want to fill Cusack Park or to try our best to do it, we want the young players in the county to go to Cusack Park next year or travel down to Thurles or Nowlan Park or wherever we have to go with that type of passion or pride in your county.
“The structure of the things we are doing with Joe and his backroom team means it is just a fantastic achievement.”