2003 COUNTY FINAL
County Final 2003
The Downs 2-11 Athlone 1-09 - (12/10/2003)
Westmeath manager-in-waiting Páidí Ó Sé was not in Cusack Park for last Sunday's county final replay but a video of this game would make interesting viewing for the Lake County's new supremo.
High tempo-action, three fine goals, a host of well-taken points, a sending off - all in all, this was a hugely entertaining contest between the only two Westmeath club sides to ever reach a Leinster final.
Ultimately, an ever-increasing number of absentees - not least Rory O'Connell after he was sent off - conspired to end Athlone's hopes of taking their 21st senior championship title.
In truth, Athlone could have no complaints as The Downs deservedly triumphed to take their eighth senior championship crown. Over the two matches, The Downs were the better team as they bridged a 23-year gap since their last SFC title.
But Athlone supporters will be wondering what might have been had O'Connell remained on the field to the end.
O'Connell, the only Westmeath man to ever receive an All-Star award in football, received his marching orders midway through the second half after he was justifiably shown his second yellow card for a reckless challenge on Shane Deering.
It was a shattering blow for Athlone as O'Connell had been having a stormer in the second half. At the time of the midfielder's sending off, The Downs held a one-point lead, but the impetus was with the Shannonsiders after they fought back from a half-time deficit of six points.
After O'Connell's sending off, Athlone lacked leadership and presence around the middle of the field and The Downs took full advantage, outscoring their opponents 0-5 to 0-1 for the remainder.
But O'Connell's sending off was not the only setback Athlone had to deal with on the day.
Despite what club officials were saying publicly last week, the Athlone players knew that their captain Tom Stuart-Trainor would not be cutting short his honeymoon to make it back for the replay. Injuries ruled out both Stephen Hahessy and Dobsey Prendergast and to cap it off Aidan Collins - who again played very well - had to retire through injury in the second half.
All this meant the Athlone side had to be revamped from the drawn match. The switches probably had an unsettling effect though Athlone actually improved their performance - but they found that The Downs had improved even more.
And none of Athlone's difficulties should take from The Downs' achievement. A predominately young side, The Downs combined determination and discipline with plenty of good, intelligent football.
The black and amber defence was again excellent and restricted the influence of Athlone's gunslingers like Neil Dolan and Joe Fallon. Steven Cleary and Sean O'Leary and, to a lesser extent, Darren Devine and Sean Loughlin, were outstanding.
As in the drawn match, Cleary faced Joe Fallon and, while at some stages Fallon seemed Athlone's only outlet in the full-forward line, the no. 4 made life so difficult for him that the skilful attacker was forced deep to hunt for scraps.
There were many other heroes in black and amber. Tommy Cleary finished with a total of 7 points, Barry Conroy had a sparkling first half, John Smyth did hugely valuable work in attack and defence, while Deering was a dynamo around the field.
The entertainment value of the game was helped by the favourable, dry conditions, with only a slight breeze blowing, which aided Athlone in the first half.
The sides exchanged converted frees early on before Adrian Moran slotted over the game's first point from play in the 11th minute to give Athlone a 0-3 to 0-1 lead.
This triggered a response from The Downs and Cleary soon found the target. And Barry Conroy - the game's leading performer in the first half - provided two of the match's most memorable vignettes with a brace of points.
But the deadball accuracy of Fallon and Dolan was keeping Athlone in touch and in the 29th minute they drew level (0-5 apiece) courtesy of Seamus Mitchell's fine long-range point.
And so it looked like very little, if anything, would divide the teams when they adjourned for tea. But events during the five minutes of first-half injury-time changed all that.
In the 33rd minute, The Downs struck for their first goal. It all started with a superb pass by Barry Conroy - one of many from Conroy whose distribution was often first class - into Paul Shanley in the left corner. Shanley delivered a pinpoint ball across goal to his brother Keith, who finished crisply to the net.
Athlone were reeling and within barely a minute things got worse. Again a cleverly-worked move proved their undoing. Keith Shanley fed Tommy Cleary on the right, who used his strength to hold off covering defenders before passing across goal to James Conroy, whose shot trickled into the net off the butt of an upright.
Facing a deficit of 2-5 to 0-5, Athlone didn't panic when hostilities resumed. Rory O'Connell set the tone by determinedly winning the throw-in and a vibrant Seamus Mitchell won two frees which were expertly pointed by Fallon. And then came the goal of the day in the 39th minute.
If The Downs' two goals were wonderful team efforts, Neil Dolan's goal was an absolutely brilliant individual goal. Seizing on a Philip Allen delivery, Dolan neatly sidestepped Sean O'Leary and drove a blistering shot to the roof of the net - it's a wonder the netting remained in situ.
And when O'Connell kicked a rare left-footed point in the 43rd minute to bring the sides level, Athlone looked set to achieve a famous victory.
But The Downs never panicked and, unlike Athlone, held their discipline under pressure.
The Downs' most potent attacking weapon in the drawn match, James Conroy, was for the most part well-marshalled on this occasion by Fergal Murray. But Tommy Cleary again rose to the occasion.
First he punished O'Connell's wayward fisted pass by steering the ball between the posts for his side's first score of the second half. And after O'Connell was dismissed, Cleary converted the resulting free. He set up wing-back Conor Carley for a point and then delicately (and wisely) flicked the ball over when Barry Conroy's long ball put him through.
The Downs were practically home and hosed. Paul Shanley's enterprise was rewarded when he got on the scoresheet in the 57th minute and Cleary added another free with normal time almost up.
Athlone valiantly sought a goal that, but a pointed free from Mitchell was their only reward for their late endeavours.
Scorers - Athlone: N Dolan 1-2 (0-2f), J Fallon 0-3 (3f), S Mitchell 0-2 (1f), A Moran and R O'Connell 0-1 each.
The Downs: T Cleary 0-7 (4f), K Shanley and J Conroy 1-0 each, B Conroy 0-2, C Carley and P Shanley 0-1 each.
Man-of-the-match: Steven Cleary.
Athlone: Richie Daly; Paddy Dunning, Philip Allen, Fergal Murray; Damien Kelly, Ollie Keating, David O'Neill; Rory O'Connell, Aidan Collins; Adrian Moran, Neil Dolan, Seamus Mitchell; Joe Fallon, Dobsey Prendergast, Neil Dolan. Subs: Padraig ‘Amby' Fogarty for Moran (27 mins), Dermot McManus for Collins (45), James Kilroy for Keating (54).
The Downs: Ciaran McCormack; David O'Reilly, Sean O'Leary, Steven Cleary; Conor Carley, Darren Devine, Sean Loughlin; Barry Conroy, Brendan Murtagh; Shane Deering, John Smyth, Paul Shanley; Tommy Cleary, James Conroy, Keith Shanley. Subs: Joe Corroon for K Shanley (59).
Referee: Sean Sheridan (Tyrrellspass).
Attendance: 3,500 (approx).