Down left to count the cost of defeat as route to All-Ireland Championship hits bump in the road

Westmeath battle back to claim Division Three title

Liam Kerr took the fight to Westmeath as Down got the better of the first half - only for the Lake County to come out on top. Picture by Brendan Monaghan
Liam Kerr took the fight to Westmeath as Down got the better of the first half - only for the Lake County to come out on top. Picture by Brendan Monaghan
Allianz National Football League Division Three: Down 0-13 Westmeath 2-10

AS they slipped meekly from the dressing room towards the exit doors beneath Croke Park, the ashen faces on Down’s players said it all. League finals may not matter to most but, to them, this one meant plenty.

The sullen looks and whispered conversations were not solely because Westmeath had just inflicted their first competitive defeat of the campaign. It wasn’t even because the Mournemen had missed the opportunity to collect a first national title of any kind since lifting Sam 30 years ago.

No, what will sting most the morning after is knowing that, by virtue of dropping down a notch in the National League rankings, their route to the All-Ireland Championship just got a little bit tougher.

Victory over the Lake County would have meant Louth – probably the second best side in Leinster - reaching a provincial final from the non-Dublin side of the draw would be enough for Down to rub shoulders with the big boys, and avoid a second unwanted season in the Tailteann Cup.

Now, their fate is solely in their own hands – with a first Ulster appearance since 2017 the minimum requirement. It is unquestionably a flaw in the system that Clare, well beaten by the Division Two-bound Mournemen last week, need only defeat bottom tier counties Waterford and Tipperary to guarantee their spot in a Munster decider.

Conor Laverty’s men, on the other side, must first negotiate the challenge of neighbours Antrim, with Fermanagh or Armagh awaiting the winner in the Ulster semi-final. It is a tall order, but one they must now brace themselves for after suffering a second Croke Park defeat in the space of nine months.

Back in July it was Meath who snuffed out the rampant Down attack that had so dazzlingly destroyed Laois weeks earlier, and Westmeath similarly curtailed the cut and thrust that saw the Mournemen blitz their way to promotion in a blur of big scores and goals galore.

The only majors that came on Saturday night were from Westmeath, Jonathan Lynam plundering both, first outjumping John O’Hare to fist home before, in the 59th minute, collecting a pass from the superb Sam McCartan and burying low to the net.

Yet those crucial scores weren’t exactly sucker punches, with Dessie Dolan’s side regularly threatening on the counter after weathering an early Down storm, the Lake County eventually able to dictate the terms of engagement after getting on top in the second half.

It was remarkably similar to their last meeting in Mullingar a fortnight ago, with the Mournemen unable to find a way of penetrating Westmeath’s low block, all too often looking to the pace of Liam Kerr to conjure something special while panicky shooting saw the wide count creep up.

Finding that effective plan B will be critical as the weeks and months roll on. Odhran Murdock was dangerous when drifting inside early on but, as Westmeath crowded the central channel and defended with controlled aggression, establishing any kind of rhythm proved elusive.

Down were defending well too, leading to a fairly solemn spectacle for the sparsely populated lower Hogan Stand to enjoy/endure as the sound of players shouting instructions across the field echoed around the near-empty stadium.

The lively Ronan O’Toole served warning of Westmeath’s goal threat when he dragged his shot wide of O’Hare’s near post 25 minutes in, and just three minutes later the Glenn goalkeeper was beaten to the punch when Lynam rose highest to convert Luke Loughlin’s wayward effort at the posts.

Having hung in for most of the opening half, Dessie Dolan’s side slowly but surely gathered momentum as the second half wore on, exposing Down’s wearying legs and the green gaps opening through the pace of McCartan, Ronan O’Toole and Robbie Forde.

Substitute Oisin Savage had just edged the Mournemen ahead as the last 10 loomed, only for Lynam to punish Down again, gathering the ball after Daniel Guinness threw a desperate palm at O’Toole’s fisted through ball.

From there, Westmeath were in their comfort zone – sitting back, ready to pounce. Barry O’Hagan came on for his first minutes since the horror injury that has left sidelined since early February 2023, but even the mercurial Clonduff man couldn’t alter the game’s course as the Lake County saw it out.

The celebrations were their’s, the All-Ireland dream edging another step closer. Down, meanwhile, have it all to do.

Down: J O’Hare; P Fegan, R McEvoy, C Doherty; M Rooney (0-1), P Laverty, D Guinness, F McElroy; J Flynn, O Murdock (0-1); L Kerr (0-3), J McGovern, D Magill; J Guinness, P Havern (0-7, frees). Subs: O Savage (0-1) for McGovern (39), S Annett for J Guinness (44), C Francis for McElroy (54), B O’Hagan for Rooney (61), R Mason for Flynn (67)

Yellow card: R McEvoy (51)

Westmeath: J Daly; D Scahill, C Drumm, J Gonoud; J Dolan, D Lynch (0-1), S McCartan (0-4, 0-1 free, 0-2 45s); R Connellan, A McCormack; J Lynam (2-0), R O’Toole, C Dillon (0-1); L Loughlin (0-1, free), S Smith, R Forde (0-3, 0-1 free). Subs: S Baker for Smith (46), L Dolan for Loughlin (50), M Whittaker for Dillon (54), N Harte for Gonoud (61), J Heslin for Forde (70+1)

Yellow cards: R Connellan (39), L Loughlin (41), A McCormack (69)

Referee: B Tiernan (Dublin)