AFTER MAKING THEIR first-ever visit to Croke Park one to remember by lifting their first All-Ireland title in the 2017 Premier Junior final, Westmeath are primed for a return to HQ on the biggest day of the camogie calendar.
Westmeath captain Mairead McCormack.
Source: Ryan Byrne/INPHO
Just two years later, Mairéad McCormack’s side find themselves one step away from senior status as they go head-to-head with Galway in the intermediate decider on Sunday [throw-in 2pm, live on RTÉ].
But first, a look back on that historic day. 10 September 2017.
McCormack laughs when she’s asked for her memories of that day.
“I’ll never forget it,” the Castletown Geogeghan star smiles. “Especially when I had two sisters playing. Mam and Dad dropped us in that morning and got onto the bus… the embarrassment!”
28-year-old Mairéad, now captain, lined out at wing forward that day, Edel (32) stood firm at full-back and Joanne (30) led the charge in midfield. A full on Sister Act, they’ll all tog out again on Sunday but hopefully there won’t be as much drama, or as many nerves, before a ball is pucked this time around.
Even prior to their proud parents landing on the bus, there were a few touch-and-go moments.
“She’ll kill me for saying it,” McCormack laughs, “but that morning, we all met up in the home house before we left and poor old Joanne forgot her jacket. Myself and Edel were sitting in the jeep ready to go off and Joanne started crying because she didn’t have the correct gear. That was just pure nerves.”
For Mairéad, they disappeared shortly after she graced the hallowed turf of Croke Park for the first time, however.
There is, of course, another laugh as she remembers what happened trying to imitate a Westmeath great just after running out on the battlefield.
“Gary Connaughton was renowned for jumping over the bench out in Croke Park,” McCormack explains. “I told the girls I’d give it a go anyway and caught the foot going over…
Gary Connaughton jumping over the bench in 2006.
Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO
“I didn’t fall, I managed to brush it off so that was my nerves gone out the window! I’ll walk over it this time. I’m two years older, I definitely won’t make it!
“It was an extremely exciting day.”
A camogie-mad family now, the parents and their other sister travel the length and breadth of the country to support their pride and joy, even in challenge matches. But it wasn’t always camogie.
Not for Mairéad, anyway.
“Football was always my number one sport,” the Streamstown native says. “I played county football from U12 up to senior but then I had a few injuries. I tore my cruciate twice, the same one.”
She was 16 the first time and 18 the second, and of course, two surgeries followed. The first time around, she admits she didn’t do near enough rehab: “I didn’t do anything with it the first time. I suppose I just thought, ‘I’ll hop up on the bike once or twice and I’ll be grand.’”
She wasn’t exactly grand when she suffered the dreaded injury again just two years later, but she learned from her past mistakes and did her rehab by the book.
“I’m all good now, but I still strap it up very tightly,” she assures. “I hurt my knee; not the cruciate but in general, in the championship this year so mentally, I like to have it set.”
Since switching to the small ball code, McCormack hasn’t looked back. Just like this brilliant Westmeath outfit over the past few years. Their progress has been something else, and she says Johnny Greville holds most of the responsibility for that.
This year, Raharney man Greville juggled the top job with his selector duties for the Westmeath senior hurlers and management commitments with the county’s U20 side.
“It’s unbelievable,” McCormack smiles. “The last few years, even before Johnny came on board, there was a little bit of belief. Players are getting a little bit older, I’d say we were waiting for some of the underage to come through and now they have.
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Greville with sister, Pamela, and Denise McGrath in 2017.
Source: Gary Carr/INPHO
“Johnny Greville has really brought this county to another level though. I’m not even sure if Pamela [his sister and star forward] would still be around if it wasn’t for Johnny. She has such a mature head on the pitch and she’s playing so well, there’s no stopping her.
“Johnny has brought on a huge panel of selectors; his brother Jimmy, Frank Mullan and Darren McCormack from Castlepollard who was a hero for Westmeath himself. We have extremely good management. Sometimes you mightn’t listen to a manager but when you know that they know what they’re on about and have played themselves, you do.”
From Premier Junior to 60 minutes away from the senior ranks in two years, it’s been a remarkable rise. And a very quick one, at that.
The ingredients? Pure hard work, testing themselves against the best and self-belief are the main few.
“The year we won the junior, we were intermediate in Leinster so playing those stronger teams really stood to us,” McCormack, who works in Esker Rí Nursing Home in Offaly as a receptionist, explains.
“Then, we knew in our heads we weren’t far off winning intermediate. To be honest I was disappointed last year not to make the knockout stages, and that was our first year up. We have that real belief in the team that we could make this.”
She doesn’t have to look far for a perfect example.
“My sister Joanne came back after having a child this year. That just shows that she knew we were getting to Croke Park. She wouldn’t have done it only that she knew. We just have to finish it out now and hopefully lift the cup.”
That’s the focus now after an extremely hard-fought, and important, semi-final win over 2018 finalists Down. That was a massive test, the toughest team Westmeath have faced this year apart from the Kilkenny seniors they locked horns with in a challenge match, she reckons.
With that game also streamed live, McCormack says it will stand to them considering the fact that younger players may get nervous about being on TV.
Mairead celebrating the semi-final win with her sister Joanne.
Source: Laszlo Geczo/INPHO
Another huge step for the younger contingent, headed by the likes of 18-year-old Megan Dowdall — “a key player who steps up as much as any senior player” — ahead of the big day is them coming up for a look around Croke Park on Saturday.
With it all becoming real after a Meet and Greet at Cusack Park last Friday, it’s all eyes on the Tribeswomen on Sunday now. At the time of our conversation, there was the slight downer of club matches on the Tuesday and Wednesday after the decider, but that didn’t bother McCormack too much.
“It’s a pity but we’ll get on with it and face it when it comes,” she said, shaking off any concern with her entire attention on the Westerners.
Contesting both the intermediate and senior finals, Galway were stern opposition for Westmeath through the year.
“We played them in the league,” McCormack says. “We were winning until the last puck of the ball and they got a goal to draw the game, and then we lost by a point in the Championship.”
So could it be a case of third time lucky in 2019? Who knows.
“It’ll be extremely tight again.” she concludes. “Personally I think we’re probably in the best position. Underdogs, and they have the ‘double’ pressure too.”
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