Not only was last year's one point loss disappointing for Offaly, but the aftermath drew a lot of unwanted attention. Westmeath's Kieran Martin was left with a bloodied nose after a scuffle with Niall Smith at the final whistle, garnering plenty of disapproving eyes on Offaly.
It smacked of an unsporting nature on Offaly's part in what was a feisty occasion, but it came about following a lack of sportsmanship from the Westmeath man. It was foolishly reported by some that the incident happened after Martin had offered an Offaly man a handshake at the final whistle.
The clip that surfaced on the Sunday Game last June appeared to show a different story that makes Kieran Martin look less a victim, and more an instigator in the incident. He clearly approached the Offaly player and goaded him, leaning in to shout something, that we can discern was far from gracious.
Now, there is no defending a player who lashes out at an opponent, whether they are being sledged or not, and certainly the resultant scrap was embarrassing for all concerned, including the Offaly man. However, that type of behaviour from Martin shows just how much beating Offaly meant to Westmeath; we are neighbours after all. It also shows a wedge between the two counties, a real healthy rivalry that ran bitter that day in Mullingar and reignites this weekend.
Martin's alleged sledging of the Offaly man reveals their disdain for our county and our players. He was more than happy to put the boot in, metaphorically speaking, once the whistle had brought the curtain down on their one-point win last year. It was a bitter pill to swallow and that showed in Smith's reaction.
If the Offaly team needs a bit of extra motivation, surely we can take that boasting, all that macho grandstanding shown by Martin in that instance, and use it to our advantage. There's not one Offaly player that wants to go through the same experience and listen to Westmeath supporters gloating with the bragging rights for the next year.
If anything, perhaps it was that edge which saw Westmeath over the line that day in 2016. We came into their backyard and they weren't letting us leave with a victory. More power to them for that. But they're pulling up on our doorstep on Sunday, and we must stand up and shut them out. A large percentage of this game will be psychological and that's the battle we must win more than any other.
We held on in Division 3 of the Allianz Football League, while they earned promotion to the same division for next season after mopping up unbeaten in Division 4. So, technically speaking, that leaves us on a fairly level playing field, meaning fine margins and split seconds could prove the difference. We have to have that mental toughness to out punch them, and I believe we have it - we've shown it this year.
Offaly went through a tumultuous time of things for much of the league. The Armagh defeat caused a lot of hurt and drew a lot of unwanted attention, something you can be guaranteed was watched with glee in counties like Westmeath. Turmoil in a county you are due to face in the championship is a welcome sideshow, and of course, we'd have enjoyed it too had it arrived in the Westmeath camp instead of our own.
After the Armagh debacle, Offaly football rallied in a competitive division and overcame the odds, even on the last day when pitted against Laois in a real battle for survival. That shows guts. Bottom of the table with three games to go, losing in agonising fashion to Tipperary in Tullamore, and yet finishing with two wins to stay up. It goes to show that we have the grit, but our problem has always been the fact that we reserve the use of it for very few occasions.
We rolled over against Armagh, and taking the abuse that followed, we finally stood up when it came to the crunch with vital wins and this game on Sunday is just as important, if not more so. Provincial victories are what we need to further our progression after a few dismal seasons. Staying in a similar state year on year breeds a lack of passion, a sort of concession to mediocrity that sees counties wallow for years.
Yes, the carrot is a poisoned one; the daunting task of facing Dublin in a Leinster semi-final, but the unwanted prize for second place this weekend is a game against the losers of Monaghan and Cavan, and presumably a very short summer on foot of that. Even if Dublin were to put up a big score on us, at least progressing through Leinster in some way raises our stock and gives us a new target.
Our target recently has been survival. Surviving in Division 3, surviving for as long as possible in the the provincial and qualifier phases of the championship. We need to start emerging from that, and Sunday is as good a time as any. Go out to triumph, and not just survive. Show them respect, but go in there in the knowledge that they don't have anything we can't handle.
We perhaps showed them too much respect last year in Mullingar. We don't need to do that. They were a Division 4 team until a couple of weeks ago, they had suffered a series of relegations, and despite creeping into a couple of Leinster Finals in recent years, they are no further along in their progression than Offaly.
Last year's defeat stuck in the throat of many supporters and players as we all know. Instead of dwelling on that, take it as a positive. You must go to the depths in order to re-emerge a stronger force. Sunday will be a battle, that can be guaranteed. There is some element of bad blood there from last year and I think that can work in our favour. They are coming to win again, but we are there to avenge a defeat, and that puts us in a strong position.
As Arthur Golden said, “A wounded tiger is a dangerous beast,” and lord knows we were wounded last June at Cusack Park.
Offaly's Leinster quarter-final with Westmeath throws in at 3pm on Sunday, June 11, at Bord na Móna O'Connor Park.
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