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From 'dark days' and 'daunting fixtures' to Croke Park glory - enjoyment key for Westmeath hurlers

Tommy Doyle reflects on a memorable 2021.

IT WAS COMING off the pitch after the Westmeath hurlers’ last training session of the year that Tommy Doyle turned to coach and selector Noel Larkin.

westmeath-celebrate-with-the-joe-mcdonagh-cup Westmeath celebrate with the Joe McDonagh Cup. Source: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

“Whatever is to come, this was one of my most enjoyable years with Westmeath,” he said, with that elusive Joe McDonagh medal in his back pocket and a Division 1 relegation battle with Laois to go.

“It was just such an enjoyable year and and it just comes down to the people involved.”

Speaking to The42 to promote his club’s Win a 30k Kitchen fundraiser, the Lough Lene Gaels man is in a reflective mood. While that Laois clash ultimately ended in demotion, Doyle is extremely upbeat about 2021 as a whole.

And why wouldn’t he be? It’s a year which will always be remembered in Westmeath hurling circles for that July day in Croke Park when they made it third time lucky in the Joe McDonagh Cup final.

“Very proud and delighted to be part of such a great bunch of lads,” he begins. “I think the atmosphere this year was just on a different level. We probably knew we left behind in different years but we just had the feeling coming up to the final that this was our year.

“The management and everyone involved, I felt we were in a lot better place. Even though we had tough games in Division 1, it always seemed to be enjoyable at training.

“I’ve been around different squads that maybe lads probably took it a bit harder and were always probably dwelling on games in the past. Every Monday was new week – and that’s the way it was from our first session back in April. It just felt like there was a different hunger this year compared to last year anyway.

“I’m just delighted to have something to show at the end for it. My family and friends, especially my Dad and Mam, have been at games all over the country – down to Kerry, up to Antrim – and just to give them one big day in Croke Park, which we probably didn’t the last two times we were there, was great.

“It was just a bit disappointing to end the campaign against Laois on a downer, but that’s sport for you. Things change quick in a week. But look, if you gave us Joe McDonagh at the start of the year, we would have taken it so we’re delighted.”

Ultimately, playing the top teams in Division 1 paved the way for success.

Coming back from individual training through lockdown, the league road ahead was certainly an uphill – and intimidating – one, but it battle-hardened them and sharpened the axe for what was to follow.

Again, Doyle uses a conversation with Larkin as a reference point. “Westmeath teams had never played five All-Ireland contenders in the middle of summer back-to-back,” as he points out.

That was something former Galway selector Larkin mentioned to the team, managed by Shane O’Brien, at the beginning of the campaign.

tommy-doyle-dejected-after-the-game-with-teammates After the defeat to Tipperary. Source: Tommy Dickson/INPHO

“It’s whatever way you look at it at the start,” Doyles says now. “We knew we had those daunting fixtures but we looked at it as an opportunity and not as something to be afraid of.

“We said, ‘You mightn’t get this opportunity ever again, so embrace it’. Every man on the panel did.

“We used so many players. We set up with a game plan from the first game and we just tried to build on that, see what worked, see what didn’t, and it definitely helped us by the end of it. The intensity we played at, the physicality of the games we were playing and that style of hurling during the summer [helped].

“The only disappointment obviously was the supporters not getting to see us in Cusack Park playing Limerick, playing Tipperary. That didn’t happen but hopefully it comes again in the coming years.”

Going forward, there’ll be change at the top after O’Brien stepped down from his role as manager earlier this month. The Dubliner had been involved for the past three years, two of those as manager, having succeeded Joe Quaid in the hot-seat.

With Galway duo Larkin and Kerins, and Tipperary’s Paudie O’Neill among those in the backroom team, Doyle pays tribute to a special group.

“Look, I have great respect and great time for all the lads involved. Even going back to Frank Flannery, who was involved last year, we probably learned from the pandemic. The lads understanding the mental state of players during a pandemic; how training helps and how maybe too much training doesn’t help.

“The lads learned, adapted, took a lot on board from players’ feedback and just made the environment that we were in this year such a good place to be. I’m sure for the majority of the panel, they enjoyed it so much. It’s definitely a year we’ll remember and the people involved this year will definitely remember – and hopefully, we’ll work with guys like that again, or similar people.

“Shane came in as manager a couple years ago, we had a rocky Joe McDonagh last year, but and I think it just shows serious character to come back from that and win. It’s very much appreciated from all the players.

“It is probably still a bit raw for most of us, just being announced so soon after the hurling has finished and we’re back in the clubs now. It hasn’t probably registered with a lot of us yet, but obviously we’d be wishing the management team the best of luck on what’s to come. Some of them may be involved again, we don’t know.”

shane-obrien-celebrates-at-the-final-whistle Shane O'Brien and his management team after the Joe McDonagh win. Source: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

Doyle can’t say enough about the “great bunch” and their invaluable contributions; the hammering home of enjoyment the main thing above all else.

People often lose sight of that at times, whereas we must remember that this is an amateur sport and a hobby. It’s not the be all and end all, although it feels like that at times. There is far more to life, and greater emphasis should be put on enjoyment.

“That’s it,” Doyle agrees. “And you probably learn a lot about yourself and when hurling is taken away from you for so long. Should you be so stressed out when you lose a game? I think it’s finding balance between enjoying it so much and getting that thrill of playing and winning, to understanding that the tough days are there as well and you can balance them both out and you can get on with your life outside of it.

“I know over the years, I’ve had tough weeks, months after a bad loss, which is no way to go on in life, but when you balance that out, you enjoy playing and it’s not as much pressure when you go to actually walk out on pitch, thinking about what’s going to happen, what mightn’t work.

“It was something that was talked about – Declan Coyle was brought in by Shane this year and he put it into our heads to live every moment, enjoy every moment as it goes on and don’t be thinking too far ahead or too far behind. Just enjoy what’s going on at the minute and for the best part, we did.”

They certainly did on that fateful day at HQ, powering past Kerry to lift the national silverware after back-t0-back decider defeats.

So many players say it: Croke Park is the best place in the world to be when you win, but the loneliest when you lose.

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Doyle can certainly vouch for that, the victory probably even sweeter after the previous shortcomings.

“It’s something that I’ll definitely remember for a long time,” he smiles. “We’ve been in that dark place before when we played Carlow and Laois and those lads had that experience of winning.

“I spoke to players from those teams afterwards and just got that feeling that we needed to get back there and I wanted to have something to remember. A massive day for not only the players and management, but supporters of Westmeath GAA.

“As I said, just delighted to give that one day out in Croke Park for them and have a win out of it. So hopefully it happens again, we’ll have more days like that before I’m finished anyway. Hopefully that’s just the start so we’ll see what’s to come.”

tommy-doyle-and-alan-cadogan Doyle in actio against Alan Cadogan in 2019. Source: Laszlo Geczo/INPHO

While his entire focus is on his roots at his beloved Lough Lene Gaels at the moment, 2022 is just around the corner.

He echoes the belief of O’Brien, who signed off his parting statement with: “Westmeath hurling is in a very strong position and I look forward to seeing their continued development in the coming years.”

With young talent coming through and experience under their belts from big games this summer — “that will hopefully drive them on to stick around Westmeath hurling and hopefully take us on to the next step” — Doyle is optimistic about the future.

But he won’t get too carried away just yet.

“Look, who knows what’s to come,” he concludes. “As I said, you live every moment now, that’s the way we’re all doing it.

“We don’t know what’s to come, hopefully we’ll have the best people involved going forward – that includes players, management, and county board – that it gives us the opportunity to step on. 

“We’re going to have as tough of games. We found it so hard to get out of Division 2 the last three to five years, and I know all the teams there have found it so hard to get up: Antrim, Kerry’s still knocking on the door, Offaly failed at the first attempt to go back up before and got up this year so it is a difficult division to get out of.

“Look, we have to just take it game by game and hopefully get back to Division 1, and hopefully put up a good show in Leinster hurling next year. That’s the big incentive for next year, to enjoy Leinster hurling during the summer again.”

It’s the enjoyment that’s key, after all.

***

 The Win a 30k Kitchen fundraiser is in aid of Lough Lene Gaels Hurling Club, in North Westmeath, and will help support the development of their GAA pitch and facilities.

Tickets are €20 – or can be bought in our value ticket deals at 3 tickets for €50 and 7 tickets for €100 – and are available for purchase at www.wina30kkitchen.ie.

About the author:

Emma Duffy

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