Joe Fortune loving life with Westmeath hurlers and a small slice of the spotlight

Joe Fortune
Westmeath manager Joe Fortune Picture: Seamus Loughran (seamus loughran)

FOREVER standing in the shadow of hurling’s big guns, Joe Fortune wouldn’t have it any other way.

The Wexford native is fuelled by the energy that radiates from the Westmeath hurlers and the couple of hundred hearty souls that congregate in Cusack Park’s main stand on any given Saturday or Sunday.

When you decide to manage in the underbelly of inter-county hurling, you know there will be more bad days than good.

Westmeath suffered a 31-point drubbing to Galway in Salthill on the opening day of the NHL season.

The next day they got to within six points of Limerick – the kind of moral victory that sustains the hearty souls in the main stand as well as the players and Fortune himself.

Defeat was inevitable against Tipperary but putting up 2-21 on the scoreboard against one of the Liam MacCarthy contenders represented another moral victory.

When you’re a hurling county like Westmeath, you win battles but rarely the war.

When the occasional good day comes, though, nothing beats it - just like when they defeated Wexford in last year’s Leinster SHC round robin.

But that winning feeling doesn’t last long.

A week later, Antrim relegated them to the Joe McDonagh.

Last Saturday evening, Fortune leaned against a table in a small office just off the main corridor that leads you to the changing rooms, speaking to two local reporters and The Irish News.

He’d just experienced one of those good days as Westmeath manager when they claimed a League victory over visitors Antrim.

It gives them a fighting chance of pinching a top-four berth in Division 1B going into the last round of games if they manage to upset Dublin in Parnell Park this weekend, but it’s unlikely to be enough to win a place in next season’s new-look Division 1A.

Constantly fighting head winds, Fortune knows and accepts the terrain – but it doesn’t stop you from asking him why he does it.

“Everybody asks what’s it like to play against the big boys?” he says.

“Antrim, Offaly and Westmeath deserve to be playing in Division One because they won the lower divisions, and there are days where, yeah, it’ll be dreadful – like it was in Salthill.

“There will be other days too when the players realise that they deserve to be at this level. It’s not an easy station, I’m not going to lie to you – the numbers, the facilities.

“I didn’t know last Monday at five o’clock where we were going to train on Tuesday. It’s tough. In time to come, please God, Westmeath will have that centre of excellence.

“Sometimes there’s an overwhelming sense from other people that we shouldn’t be successful.”

Now in his third season with Westmeath, Fortune was linked to taking the managerial hotseat in his native Wexford last season before it was announced he was staying put.

During two-and-a-bit years, there was only one occasion where his faith wavered.

In a straight Championship relegation shoot-out with Antrim in Cusack Park last May, Westmeath couldn’t contain the Ulstermen and meekly made their way to this season’s Joe McDonagh series - their key focus in 2024.

“These lads grew up with this and they love bringing Cork and Limerick here. There is never a day I’ve driven home after a game, except last year after the Antrim game, where I questioned, can they really make that step?

“That was the only day it really hurt. Other than that, I’ve driven down losing by 25 or 30 points thinking anything else. I love coming up here, I love the energy that’s here and I love the enthusiasm that comes from the people. There mightn’t be many here but, Jeez, anybody that’s here really loves hurling.”

Whether they can deny the Dubs in Parnell is a big ask but Fortune has Davy Glennon and Killian Doyle available again with the pair helping Westmeath over the line in the second half against Antrim last Saturday.

“A good performance is what I’ll look for next week [against Dublin],” Fortune said.

“As I said to the boys, if we look at the scoreboard at the end and we win it, it doesn’t matter. If we lose it, it doesn’t matter.

“What matters is that we keep making progress.”

To gain an inch at the top end of inter-county hurling takes a gargantuan effort.

Joe Fortune and Westmeath are doing just that.

Westmeath  vs  Antrim.jpg
Westmeath vs Antrim.jpg Westmeath hurlers have a chance of finishing in the top four in Division 1B (seamus loughran)