This is another memory that will live long in the memory – but unlike 2003 it is for all the wrong reasons.
The mid part of the 2000s was an incredible era in Leinster football, a time when Dublin weren’t the force they are now and six different counties tasted provincial success from 1997 to 2004.
In 2004 we got a final like no other. A Laois team under Mick O’Dwyer, Westmeath under Paidi O Se. It was only Westmeath’s third ever Leinster final appearance and their first since 1949.
The two counties had a remarkably similar profile. Both had minor and U-21 success in the 90s, and had crossed swords on numerous times. Both had a decent set of players and both opted for a proven Kerry manager to turn that into senior success.
While Laois went for O’Dwyer after his time in Kildare finished in 2002, Westmeath opted for Paidi O’Se after he was ousted from the Kerry job at the end of 2003.
O Se brought the same sort of energy to Westmeath that O’Dwyer had brought to Laois 12 months earlier.
And just as Laois had done in 2003, Westmeath’s big statement win was against Dublin in the Leinster quarter-final in 2004. They later beat Wexford in the semi-final while Laois got the better of Carlow and then Meath to set up another Leinster final showdown.
History repeated itself in the final. Laois and Westmeath had famously played out Leinster final draws at minor and U-21 in 1995 and 1999 – and the 2004 senior final ended level too, 0-13 apiece.
Laois were behind for most of the first game but rescued a draw late on when captain Chris Conway pointed off his left boot into the Hill 16 end.
The drama was really only beginning. A bout of appendicitis ruled Conway out of the replay the following Saturday, a cruel blow on the Arles-Kilcruise man who had also missed the 2003 success because of injury. And he was a massive loss too as Laois went down by 0-12 to 0-10 in the replay, a game that saw Kevin Fitzpatrick narrowly miss a goal chance in the dying minutes and Joe Higgins do his cruciate.
It was a game that also saw Donie Brennan – then still a minor – thrown in to the starting team in a surprise move.
But it was Westmeath’s day as Alan Mangan shot four points from play as part of a fine full-forward line that also saw Dessie Dolan and Denis Glennon score five between them too.
At the other end, Westmeath’s defence was immense with John Keane the standout performer that would eventually earn him an All Star.
Laois led 0-5 to 0-3 after 34 minutes but were 0-7 to 0-5 down at half-time and then 0-12 to 0-6 down with 20 minutes remaining. Westmeath failed to score again as Laois got the last four points – but it wasn’t enough and Fitzpatrick’s late missed effort ensured Westmeath held on. And Croke Park was a manic scene of maroon and white.
Because of the late Saturday evening throw-in it was nearly 10pm when the victorious Westmeath bus pulled out of Croker.
“Laois had left earlier trapped in a bubble of desolation after surrendering their provincial title and facing the prospect of a fourth round Qualifier against All Ireland champions Tyrone next Sunday,” wrote Martin Breheny in the Irish Independent the following Monday.
Laois would lose that game to Tyrone while Westmeath’s season also came to an end in their next outing as they were beaten by Derry.
LAOIS (REPLAY): Fergal Byron; Aidan Fennelly, Joe Higgins, Paul McDonald; Darren Rooney, Tom Kelly, Kevin Fitzpatrick; Padraig Clancy, Noel Garvan; Ross Munnelly, Mick Lawlor, Gary Kavanagh; Donie Brennan, Beano McDonald, Colm Parkinson. Subs: Ian Fitzgerald for Lawlor, Donal Miller for Kavanagh, Martin Delaney for Brennan and Paudge Conway for Higgins
LAOIS (DRAWN GAME): Fergal Byron; Aidan Fennelly, Colm Byrne, Joe Higgins; Darren Rooney, Tom Kelly, Paul McDonald; Padraig Clancy, Noel Garvan; Ross Munnelly, Kevin Fitzpatrick, Chris Conway; Ian Fitzgerald, Beano McDonald, Colm Parkinson. Subs: Michael Lawlor for Fitzgerald, Shane Cooke for Byrne, Gary Kavanagh for Munnelly, Paul Lawlor for M Lawlor