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'There's More Talent Here Than In Laois' - The Story Of How Westmeath Pulled Off A Major Shock

'There's More Talent Here Than In Laois' - The Story Of How Westmeath Pulled Off A Major Shock
By Conor Neville Updated

As the outside world first began to learn that something big was happening in Mullingar, the Westmeath players had as much difficulty getting their heads around the notion that they were going to beat Kilkenny as everyone else.

Westmeath's goalscorer Warren Casserly - who fired off that snapchat to his friends of his nasty head wound - says he was never confident that they were going to hold on. Even he believed that Kilkenny were surely going to come good in the end.

Casserly had more time to ponder it considering that he spent the final quarter in the dugout following that accidental dunt.

It never really dawned on us (that we were going to win). Especially myself, sitting in the dugout. Kilkenny always looked, in my eyes, that they were going to win it. I didn't think we were going to hold out at all.

Looking out on the pitch, we had only two men sitting inside their 65 yard line. We had everyone pushed back and they were only three points down. They missed some crucial frees.

When the penalty was awarded six minutes into injury time, there was devastation on the Westmeath bench. Presumably mingled with a hint of resignation. Another hard luck story. It's the type of script they've read before.

When the penalty was awarded, it was just heartbreak. I just turned my head in disbelief. I thought this is it. The one chance you get to beat one of the top teams in the country is gone. It just flashed before your eyes.

After the penalty was driven high and wide, the ref blew for full time and fellas started tearing up in the stand. County board chairman Sean Sheridan told Morning Ireland today that 'grown men and women' were welling up.

I believe there was. I believe I had a tear myself, Darren (Frehill). There was grown men and ladies that had a tear in the eye. It was a bit scary at the end but there was a few tears in the Stand and all over the place.

Westmeath PRO Aidan Walsh told us that he learned via the press guys that this is the first time Westmeath have beaten Kilkenny in any grade of hurling.

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Westmeath's results have grown steadily more respectable in the past few years. They beat Wexford in last year's minor championship, a result which was greeted as a watershed. Now, it feels like merely the starter before yesterday's main course.

Walsh says that they expected a performance but they hadn't any inkling that they might win the game. The idea wasn't really credible.

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We expected a good performance. But to win it? No, I don't think it was on anyone's agenda to win it. Maybe if you ask the guys involved they might say they were looking at it (victory) But no, realistically, it would have been the same as nine months ago betting on Leicester to win the Premiership.

Someone said to me out there that Kilkenny were 66/1 on to win this evening. Crazy odds in a two-horse race but considering the record they have, it was probably justifiable.

In an extremely low scoring game, Westmeath nosed in front at half-time, leading 0-9 to 0-8. Underdogs with such a history of losing against big teams need more persuasive evidence to convince them that glory beckons.

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Casserly's goal arrived five minutes into the second half. According to those present, it wasn't the most aesthetic of goals. Not exactly JBM 1983 territory. From the press box, Walsh said it almost resembled a 'pushover try'.

Cillian Doyle had struck the ball in from the middle of the field and I remember hearing on the sideline one of our mentors shouting "keep running, keep running" and as I made my way into the goalmouth, the ball was dropping short and lucky enough it fell into my palm and I was able to bat it into the the net.

It proved the critical score in a two-point win. Casserly required nine stitches for that head wound which made it's way around social media. Casserly originally sent it to his friends on snapchat and from there it made it onto twitter. Richie Hogan tends to cut out the middle man and upload these beauties directly onto twitter.

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Aidan Walsh jokes that they may have benefitted from some inside knowledge last night. Their U21 backroom team includes Michael Walsh, All-Ireland winning Kilkenny goalkeeper on the (often forgotten) two in a row team of 1992 and 1993. Senior manager Michael Ryan serves as another selector for the U21 side.

The manager Adrian Moran is a local man, and he's assisted by Darren McCormack, a selector with the seniors who played centre-back for Westmeath for years. He hardly ever stepped out on the same pitch as the big boys. In a pep talk to the players, Casserly said that McCormack put Westmeath's recent surge in historical perspective.

Just listening to Darren McCormack last night. Our selector on the senior panel and assistant manager on the U21s. And he was saying to us that he was never playing the likes Kilkenny or Galway. He was always playing Christy Ring hurling. And Darren was one of the best centre-backs in the county for years. And just to be playing them top teams, the buzz around the county is serious.

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Former senior manager Brian Hanley, the man who lifted Westmeath from trampled minnow terrain onto their current plateau of respectability, learned of the win via one of his former selectors in the crowd.

Westmeath were in dismal shape when he took over in spring 2011. As soon as he assumed the role, they beat Carlow and ran Galway close in two successive seasons. In 2011, the scores were tied with five minutes left.

During Hanley's reign, Cheddar Plunkett's Laois attracted greater buzz from the national media, after close shaves against Galway and a win against Offaly.

However, Hanley is adamant there is more hurling talent in Westmeath.

I would have always thought that (there was more talent in Westmeath than in Laois) I would always have said that. And you can see it now. Like, a good nineteen or twenty year old, it's whether he sticks to it. But the likes of Tommy Gallagher, Tommy Doyle, Liam Varley (who was playing last night) Aengus Clarke, Niall O'Brien, the two Grevilles, they've all stuck at it. And if the nucleus of them lads stick together. They're the key to it. They just want to play hurling. They're the ones I was trying to make senior hurlers out of at a young age. And while they were naive to the game, but they learned. And they never let me down.

Galway, as usual in an uncertain state, travel to Mullingar in a couple of weeks. The GAA-sphere is dotted with comments from Galway supporters professing their nerviness not just following last night's win but also over the form of their own team.

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A player on the Athenry team that swept all before them in the late 90s and early 2000s, he sees enough to suggest that Galway are vulnerable.

Either way, Hanley warns the big boys that a senior championship scalp is coming. The only question is who.

There will be, there will be. Definitely! Galway's club championship is just finished up now and they've a lot of injuries. They didn't get started as early as Micheal (Donoghue) would have liked so they will be under a bit of pressure going up there.

Read more: Man Fined By Court For Starting Row In Chipper Over The 1996 All-Ireland Final Replay

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