Getting back on the wagon

All-Ireland Group Stages Round One

Armagh v Westmeath

Saturday, Box-IT Athletic Grounds, 4.45pm

By Niall Gartland

WHO says the provincial championships don’t matter? After Ciaran McFaul buried the winning penalty in an Oscar-worthy Ulster final, a number of Armagh players collapsed to the Clones sod in devastation.

Who can blame them really – this was a massive occasion for the success-starved Orchard County and they’d given it absolutely everything from the word go, only to be denied by the crapshoot of a penalty shoot-out.

Beaten provincial finalists, particularly in Ulster, don’t tend to go on to great things in the race for All-Ireland glory. Last year Donegal looked a pale shadow of themselves when they re-emerged for their back-door clash against Armagh, losing out by 3-17 to 0-16. It turned out to be Declan Bonner’s final game as manager while Michael Murphy also decided to call it quits in the off-season.

But anyway, the new All-Ireland group stage format, for all its detractors (and it has many) should be something of a reprieve for teams who suffer heartache on the provincial final stage.

The Orchard County can afford to lose a game or two and still progress to the latter stages of the championship, and generally during the McGeeney years they have flourished rather than floundered when outside the confines of the Ulster Championship.

They’ve also been handed a ‘good’ draw for their All-Ireland opener. Westmeath have been pegged as the whipping boys of a group that is rounded off by Tyrone and Galway. They’ve qualified for the All-Ireland race by last year’s Tailteann Cup success, but they’ve had a fairly underwhelming season to date, finishing mid-table in Division Three before being knocked out of Leinster by Mickey Harte’s Louth, a damaging defeat all things considered.

While defeat was bad in itself, there were a number of red flags from a Westmeath perspective – the players looked dead on their feet in the final quarter, they seemed to panic under pressure, making bad unforced errors, and their kick-out strategy was cottoned onto by Louth and they had no plan B. Manager Dessie Dolan (you know the one) was also slow in making changes when some of their players looked gassed, and it all adds up to a sense of pessimism heading into the last 16 of the All-Ireland race.

By contrast, Armagh fans can still be optimistic even after the devastating manner of their Ulster final loss. On the whole it was a pretty good performance against a very good team and there certainly was no shortage of effort from start to finish. Rian O’Neill was as influential as you’d expect, goalkeeper Ethan Rafferty was a mixed bag (he was good on the attacking front anyway) and the likes of Ciaran Mackin and Conor O’Neill gave it absolutely everything.

In terms of what went wrong on the day, well, individually a few players weren’t up to par with Andrew Murnin and Conor Turbitt held scoreless for instance. That comes with the caveat that Murnin is still coming back to full fitness while Turbitt has been a marked man since shooting the lights out against Antrim and Cavan earlier in their provincial campaign.

They also failed to plunge the dagger when Derry were there for the taking and they were really rocking on their hinges late in extra-time with Rafferty repeatedly struggling to find a man from restarts.

There’s also a degree of surprise that Stefan Campbell has been largely consigned to a substitute role, and psychologically it’ll still be hard to lift themselves for the All-Ireland series, even though they will get more than one bite at the cherry.

It would still be a major shock if they fail to win this one so this is a great opportunity to get back on the wagon ahead of the exponentially tougher tests to come. It’ll be interesting to see how they go about their duties – there’s a feeling that they’ve still been a bit conservative in attack this year, though you can see why Kieran McGeeney has Rian O’Neill playing a deeper role as his influence is absolutely massive. As a leader of men you won’t get much better.

Our expectation is that they’ll rack up a fairly big score this weekend – Armagh made mincemeat of Cavan and Antrim in Ulster and Westmeath are on a fairly similar keel. Anything less would send alarm bells ringing, but really, every single metric points to an Armagh victory here, and a comfortable one at that.

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