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'Supporters Said That's One Of The Best Westmeath Performances In Years'

'Supporters Said That's One Of The Best Westmeath Performances In Years'
PJ Browne
By PJ Browne
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Like many other golf fans, Ronan O'Toole was up early on the Friday morning of the Ryder Cup. In addition to watching Europe race into a lead they would not relinquish, the Westmeath footballer had another reason to be cheerful: He was nominated for a PwC All-Star award.

"I heard the phone going off," O'Toole tells Balls.

"I didn't know, did someone get a hole-in-one or what was going on! It was very nice.

"I had my Dad there beside me. He was nearly happier than me. I don't think I was expecting it. It was a bit of a shock to the system. I had to double-check the name two or three times to see if it was me."


Two days later, O'Toole added another accolade to his collection as St Loman's defeated Coralstown/Kinnegad in the Westmeath SFC final. It was the 26-year-old's sixth county title and the club's tenth overall.

ronan o'toole westmeath gaa

1 October 2023; Ronan O'Toole of St Loman's during the Westmeath GAA Senior Club Football Championship final match between St Loman's and Coralstown-Kinnegad at TEG Cusack Park in Mullingar, Westmeath. Photo by Ben McShane/Sportsfile

O'Toole is the first All-Star nominee from St Loman's, a source of pride for the forward. It came after an inter-county season filled with setbacks, regrets, and near misses, but also positives.

Westmeath's league campaign was underwhelming. A mid-table finish in Division 3 for a side favoured for promotion. The first 35 minutes of their Leinster Championship quarter-final clash with Louth played out like a dream. They were eight points up at half-time. A nightmare followed as Louth came back to win by two.


Credit in the bank from the previous season - deposited in their account for winning the Tailteann Cup - gave Westmeath a chance to redeem themselves in the group stages of the All-Ireland SFC.

Though, they finished bottom of a group also featuring Armagh, Galway and Tyrone, their performances were met with approving nods.

Armagh beat them by a point with a smash and grab win. They led Galway by a point at half-time but the game turned on the second half sending off of Ray Connellan and the Tribesmen won by eight.


Against Tyrone, they had a late free to win the game but John Heslin's kick from an acute angle brushed the outside of the post. Had it gone inside the post, Westmeath would have progressed to the All-Ireland preliminary quarter-final at Tyrone's expense.

"You could see the learnings that we took going into the game against Armagh," says O'Toole.

"There were a lot of turnovers against Louth. We struggled to keep the ball. Our possession count in the second half was very low. They seemed to have all the ball and when we got the ball, we were very rushed in our decision-making process.


"If you look at the Armagh game, I think we held the ball for six or seven minutes and got a score out of it. Now, that's not great for the viewer but as a player, to gain confidence up there in Armagh with the crowd behind them, we just felt that we needed to hold onto the ball a bit more.

"We needed to believe in our skills and execute the basics right. I don't think we did that in the second half against Louth.

"Armagh was a game we were really looking at. I thought we did everything right... 99 per cent right, and then they got a goal out of nothing, and we ended up losing that game."


14 minutes into the clash with Armagh, O'Toole showed the form which earned him that nomination when he finished an excellent Westmeath move with a side-footed strike to the corner of Ethan Rafferty's net.

"I think that's instinctive," says O'Toole about the play which began with John Heslin's pass bouncing in front of Stephen Smith and the corner forward deftly touching the ball into his teammate's path.

"The positioning is something we had worked on. The play itself is probably a bit off the cuff. I probably knew John was going to turn onto his right, the ball goes in and Steve saw my run and I was able to peel off the defender and thankfully it went to the net.

"From a positional point of view, the last three or four years, I would have been an out-and-out 11 and playing a lot deeper. Over the last year or so, I'm trying to get inside a bit more often and get my name on the scoresheet a bit more."

Heslin made the pass from centre-forward. O'Toole and his St Loman's teammate regularly switch positions during games.

"It's something that myself and John worked on through club and county," says O'Toole.

"With packed defences in modern football, sometimes playing inside and keeping your depth, that's what the team needs off you. There's times then when you're a forward and you want to get your hands on the ball.

"Myself and John have a good relationship with each other to go in and out. It probably asks a bit more questions of a defender rather than them being an out-and-out centre-back or out-and-out fullback."

ronan o'toole westmeath gaa

18 June 2023; Ronan McNamee of Tyrone in action against Stephen Smith, left, and Ronan O'Toole of Westmeath during the GAA Football All-Ireland Senior Championship Round 3 match between Tyrone and Westmeath at Kingspan Breffni in Cavan. Photo by Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile

That near miss against Tyrone was "bittersweet".

"You're so close," says O'Toole.

I don't think anyone would have expected us [to go through]. I don't know what the odds were for us to go through in that group before the game.

We had a funny feeling in the camp that we were going to do something. They pulled away in that third quarter. It showed the character in the group to keep plugging away. Eventually, we got what could have been.

I know a lot of Westmeath supporters who came up to me and said, that's one of the best performances they've seen from a Westmeath team in a lot of years. That gives you a bit of confidence that you are able to mix it with the best of them.

They are the type of games that we want to be playing: In front of a big crowd against great opposition and mixing it with the best of them.

A year previous, Westmeath's Sam Maguire Cup campaign lasted just two games as they beat Longford and then lost to Kildare in the Leinster semi-final. Not reaching the provincial final meant Westmeath would compete for the inaugural Tailteann Cup. Winning the second tier championship has been an adhesive for the team.

ronan o'toole westmeath gaa

9 July 2022; Ronan O'Toole of Westmeath in action against Jason McLoughlin of Cavan during the GAA Tailteann Cup Final match between Cavan and Westmeath at Croke Park in Dublin. Photo by Seb Daly/Sportsfile

"We lost to Kildare and Jack (Cooney) gave us the Tuesday off," says O'Toole.

"He brought us in a huddle while we were training in The Downs and basically he just outlined why we should really go at this. Everyone was listening to him and we were like 'That actually makes a bit of sense!'

"From then on, we gave it a good rattle. We progressively improved our performances throughout. We had a bit of a struggle against Laois, got off to a ropey enough start against Carlow, and then played well against Offaly [in the semi-final] and Cavan [in the final].

"Looking back, the Tailteann Cup really brought a great bond between the players. Pre the Tailteann Cup, maybe Westmeath had two or three games [in the championship]. We had six that season.

"We got a team holiday to Cancún. It really brought us together as a team. You're nearly a little family together. You're together from late November until June or July, and you're training three or four times a week. You see them more than you see some of your family members.

"It really brought us together. Winning silverware in Croke Park is a nice feeling. I thought it was great for the group and something I will always remember."

ronan o'toole westmeath gaa

9 July 2022; Westmeath manager Jack Cooney, left, and coach Dessie Dolan celebrate after their side's victory in the GAA Tailteann Cup Final match between Cavan and Westmeath at Croke Park in Dublin. Photo by Seb Daly/Sportsfile

Six weeks after their Tailteann Cup final win, the Westmeath panel was hit with the disappointment of Jack Cooney stepping down as manager to take up the role of National Player Development Lead with the GAA. Continuity was ensured with the appointment of Westmeath legend Dessie Dolan - and All-Star in 2004 - as Cooney's successor.

'The lads have so much respect for him and what he's done in Westmeath'

"I had a good relationship with Jack," says O'Toole.

"He sent me the job [description] and I thought he was sending it to me to have a look at. I was like, 'I'm OK, Jack, fine in my own job'. He rang after that. It was tough because he was that father figure in the GAA. He taught us a lot in GAA and outside it.

"We had [Dessie] as a selector and we didn't want to change too much after winning the Tailteann going into the next season.

"I thought Dessie was the perfect fit. All the lads have so much respect for him and what he's done in Westmeath. He was always someone that I'd looked up to."

It's now seven years since O'Toole joined the Westmeath senior panel. A lot has changed in that time, "especially S&C-wise".

"Joe Nangle in Wolfhound Fitness would be our S&C coach," says O'Toole.

"He's only down the road from me. I work closely with him. When I was going on to the panel, I always knew I had the technical ability but it was probably the fitness and the strength that was a bit of an issue for me.

"The first two or three years, I worked closely with him. I give a lot of credit to him in bringing me on because he's been great with us. Everyone in the team would vouch for him.

"You train hard to make games easy."

See Also: The 1998 GAA All-Star Football Team: Where Are They Now?



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