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137 days later, Leinster football championship set to close with Westmeath-Kildare final battle

Luke Dempsey on the bid of his side St Joseph’s Rochfortbridge to land their first provincial title today.

St Joseph's manager Luke Dempsey
St Joseph's manager Luke Dempsey
Image: Tommy Grealy/INPHO

A LIFE SPENT working with county setups, involved with club sides and guiding the fortunes of school teams.

And yet the 2020 season threw up a fresh fixture scenario that Luke Dempsey had never encountered before.

On Monday 2 March he watched from the sideline as his St Joseph’s Rochfortbridge side got past Dublin’s Coláiste Eoin. Semi-final spoils in the bag and final place secured at the elite level of Leinster schools football.

The following week the country’s schools were closed and the Covid-enforced lockdown soon kicked in.

137 days later the trophy will be up for grabs today in Tullamore as the Westmeath school chase their maiden crown against reigning champions Naas CBS.

“We were always very optimistic that the final would be played at some stage,” says Dempsey.

“I thought from the outset the GAA were great, they gave hope that football would be there later in the year. We were very hopeful, working closely with Noel Delaney, the Leinster schools rep, that gave good assistance that we’d get to play the final.”

Dempsey and John Rouse, the team’s other coach from Tullamore, kept in touch with the squad during the wait of over 19 weeks since the semi-final success.

“Look these were unprecedented times. The fact that they are young lads, they keep relatively fit. They’d programmes on different weeks, which probably got a bit boring for them at times, but then we’ve had them twice a week for the last three weeks.

“That age group and fellas in particular are very much in the moment, it wouldn’t have been that difficult for them in the sense. They were facing the uncertainty about the Leaving Cert, looking for summer jobs and stuff like that but that age group get on with whatever is thrown in front of them.

“As a group they were glad to meet up together and get back training for the final but they were philosophical about it all from the start.”

The St Joseph’s side is drawn from a mixture of clubs in Westmeath and Offaly, the latter supplying a key player in Rhode’s Aaron Kelleghan, son of former county and club star Pascal.

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They had plenty support back in the spring in knockout stages in Darver and Leixlip but the restrictions on attendances will result in a strange atmosphere for today’s final at 4pm.

“There’s great interest in football in Westmeath and in this game. It’s brilliant the game is being streamed as this is the situation now with not as many people allowed to attend.

“We’re not under any illusions about the challenge. Naas have a lot of players from last year’s team that reached the All-Ireland final, they’re a physically big team and a big school to pick from of 1,200 boys. They’ve really become the dominant force in Leinster schools football with huge numbers.

“We’ve about 400 boys in our school and a panel that came up through the B competition. We won the Leinster at that level two years ago and felt it as time to have a go at the A grade again as this team had a lot of potential. It’s a great occasion for us.”

That’s not the only GAA setup for Dempsey to focus on at present, he is steering Johnstownbridge in the Kildare football scene this year. It’s a club campaign with a difference, games of consequence arriving in the summer with their Lilywhite county talents all available.

“Daniel Flynn tore his hamstring Tuesday night and it looks like he’s out for a few weeks now. But it’s been great to work with the likes of him and the Cribbins and all the Johnstownbridge lads. They’re all great lads in the club, mad interested in football. They’re my home club that I would have played with in the 80s.

“It really makes such a difference for the club having the county lads there instead of waiting all year for them and hoping they’ll come back in good shape. If the GAA season could be divided in some way, it’d make a major difference for us, we’ll see what the impact of this year will be.”

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About the author:

Fintan O'Toole

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