When Westmeath celebrated like it was 1999

May 18, 2020

Westmeath captain Aidan Canning lifts the All-Ireland U21 trophy in 1999. ©INPHO/Billy Stickland.

Last Friday marked the 21st anniversary of one of the greatest days in Westmeath GAA’s history when Luke Dempsey guided the county to an historic victory over a highly-rated Kerry team in the All-Ireland U21 football final. The 2019 Maroon & White Westmeath Yearbook takes a look back at the events leading up to that memorable day at the Gaelic Grounds in Limerick.

The Celtic Tiger was roaring, the millennium was almost upon us and Westmeath GAA was celebrating an historic All-Ireland U21 football success. What a year 1999 was!

Hard to believe that this year marks the 20th anniversary of Westmeath’s never-to-be-forgotten All-Ireland U21FC victory. Saturday, May 15 1999 remains one of the greatest days in Westmeath GAA’s history. It was the day that the Lake County stunned a star-studded Kerry team to be crowned All-Ireland U21 champions for the one and only time. The only successes comparable to it were the All-Ireland MFC triumph of 1995 and the Leinster SFC breakthrough win of 2004.

The scenes which greeted referee Brendan Gorman’s final whistle after Westmeath’s 0-12 to 0-9 victory over the mighty Kingdom at the Gaelic Grounds in Limerick were a sight to behold. Starved of success for more than a century, the Lake County had finally announced its arrival on the big stage. And for that, manager Luke Dempsey could take the lion’s share of the credit, having also masterminded the minor miracle of four years earlier. The fact that only two players – Fergal Murray and Shane Deering – featured on both teams made Luke’s achievements all the more remarkable. His selectors in 1999 were Paddy McCormack, Sean Heavin, Eunan McCormack and Michael Lydon.

The minor and U21 wins also laid the foundations for the 2004 Leinster SFC victory when All-Ireland U21 winners Derek Heavin, Michael Ennis, David O’Shaughnessy, Fergal Wilson, Alan Mangan, Joe Fallon and Dessie Dolan were all to the fore.

Westmeath entered the All-Ireland U21 final as complete outsiders, yet you would never have guessed it judging by the mood among the estimated 10,000 supporters who travelled to Limerick. The Davin Arms, which was situated within a kick of a ball of the Gaelic Grounds, was completely taken over by maroon and white-clad supporters before the game. Even at that stage, one felt it was going to be a special day for Westmeath.

The final itself was by no means a classic and it wasn’t until the early stages of the second half that it came to life. Having shared 10 points between them in the opening 30 minutes, the underdogs took the game by the scruff of the neck with three unanswered points from Kevin Burke, Joe Fallon and Dessie Dolan.

With the scoreline reading 0-10 to 0-6 and a little over 10 minutes of normal time remaining, Kerry – who were managed by Jack O’Connor – were thrown a lifeline when Ian Twiss was fouled for a penalty, but his spot-kick was brilliantly saved by Cathal Mullin, who dived to his right to deflect the ball around the post for a ‘45’, which Aodhan McGearailt converted. But Westmeath weren’t to be denied as late points from then 18-year-old Fergal Wilson and hard- working full forward Michael Ennis sparked a pitch invasion and wild celebrations.

Victorious captain Aidan Canning was almost lost for words as received the All-Ireland U21 cup from Kerryman and future GAA president Sean Kelly while looking down from the Mackey Stand on the hordes of Westmeath supporters. As one ecstatic fan remarked afterwards: “if this is what winning an All-Ireland U21 is like, what will it be like if we ever win the senior?”

The journey back to the midlands was a memorable one and the new All-Ireland champions were given a rousing reception when they arrived in Kilbeggan. By 11.30pm, they reached Mullingar where each one of the 28-man panel was introduced to the crowd that had packed into the town centre.

Westmeath's Dessie Dolan tussles for possession with Kerry's Tom O'Sullivan. ©INPHO/Billy Stickland.

It’s unlikely that Westmeath would have toppled a Kerry team that included future Sam Maguire winners Tom O’Sullivan, Michael McCarthy, Tomas O Se, Tommy Griffin, Noel Kennelly, Aodan McGearailt, Tadhg Kennelly and Paul Galvin had they not had such a difficult path to the final. Tough games against Kildare, Wicklow and Laois moulded them into a battle-hardened a hugely resilient outfit who refused to be beaten.

It all started on February 21 in Newbridge where Westmeath snatched a 0-9 apiece draw with Kildare in the first round of the Leinster championship thanks to Dessie Dolan’s last-gasp equalising free from 40 metres out. The replay in Mullingar was even more dramatic and saw Westmeath’s championship life flash before them on more than one occasion. The Lilywhites should really have won it in normal time, but they let the hosts off the hook when Colm Reilly missed a 25-metre free directly in front of the posts with time up.

That incredible miss resulted in extra-time and Westmeath were staring at elimination once again when Johnny Doyle’s goal had Kildare 1-12 to 0-11 ahead at the end of the first period. But Luke Dempsey’s charges dug deep in the second period and two goals in the space of 60 seconds from Aidan Canning and Joe Fallon proved decisive as they prevailed by 2-14 to 1-14.

More drama was to follow in the Leinster semi-final in Newbridge on March 21 when wing back Brian Lambden’s injury-time point gave Westmeath a 1-11 to 1-10 victory over Wicklow.

There were shades of the 1995 Leinster MFC final trilogy when two games were needed to separate Westmeath and Laois. Laois had won Leinster the previous year and were hotly-tipped to go all the way, but just as in ’95, Westmeath eventually ground them down.

The first Leinster final at O’Connor Park, Tullamore on April 4 ended in a 1-12 to 2-9 draw. The challengers were the better team in the first half, yet Laois were level at half-time thanks to goals from Danny Doogue and Derek Conroy. Westmeath made the perfect start to the second half when Richie Browne volleyed to the roof of the net after just 18 seconds. But the O’Moore County, who paraded 12 of the team that lost the previous year’s All-Ireland final to Kerry, fought back to level before the width of the post was all that deprived Brian ‘Beano’ McDonald of a late, late winner.

Many felt that Westmeath had missed the boat, but they proved the doubters wrong by winning the replay 1-9 to 0-10 seven days later. With another huge crowd in Tullamore braving the awful weather, the Lake County dominated the first half to take a 1-6 to 0-2 lead into the break (Joe Fallon fisted the only goal in the 12th minute). But Laois were never going to up their crown easily and, with Chris Conway in unerring form from placed balls, they reduced the deficit to the minimum in the second half before late scores from Dessie Dolan and Joe Fallon sealed the Lake County’s first-ever Leinster U21FC success.

The only game of the campaign that wasn’t too hard on Westmeath hearts was the All-Ireland semi-final against Monaghan at Croke Park on May 2. Early goals from Fergal Wilson and Dessie Dolan paved the way for a victory that was even more comfortable than what the 2-10 to 0-8 scoreline suggested.

As expected, Kerry proved much tougher opposition in the final, but such was Westmeath’s momentum, confidence and belief, that not even they could stop them.

Westmeath’s 1999 All-Ireland U21FC winning line-up was: Cathal Mullin (Garrycastle); Paul Mullen (Athlone), James Galvin (Castledaly), Fergal Murray (Athlone); Brian Lambden (Mullingar Shamrocks), Aidan Canning (St Loman’s), Micheal Burke (Mullingar Shamrocks); Kevin Burke (Milltownpass) 0-1, David O’Shaughnessy (Garrycastle); Shane Deering (The Downs), Fergal Wilson (Tubberclair) 0-1, Richie Browne (Maryland); Joe Fallon (Athlone) 0-6, Michael Ennis (Ballinagore) 0-1, Dessie Dolan (Garrycastle) 0-3. Sub used: Derek Heavin (Castledaly).

The All-Ireland U21 winning Westmeath squad. ©INPHO/Tom Honan.

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