Familiar foe in Westmeath

June 5, 2018

 ● All-Ireland Senior Football Championship Round 1

Monday mornings All-Ireland Senior Football Championship Round 1 Qualifier draw pitted Armagh against familiar opponents Westmeath. The clash of the two Division Three teams will take place at Cusack Park, Mullingar next Saturday night with a 7pm throw-in.

The Midlands venue has been a happy hunting ground for Armagh recently as they won 2-17 to 1-11 there in the League on Feb 2 this year to follow up on a Qualifiers Round 2B victory 1-12 to 1-7 last year. This time round both teams will be trying to recover from shock championship defeats as Armagh crashed out of Ulster to Fermanagh 0-12 to 0-7 and Westmeath lost out 4-13 to 1-12 at O’Connor Park to Laois.

Respective managers Kieran McGeeney and his Westmeath counterpart Colin Kelly will be looking to see vast improvements in their teams performances to book their place in the second round of the qualifiers. In truth, there can be nothing but improvement from Armagh following their Saturday night Rocky Horror Showing in Brewster Park where anything that could go wrong- did.

Up against a well organized very tactically aware Fermanagh who executed their game plan and strategy to perfection, Armagh fluffed their lines in all departments, both on the field and on the sidelines, leaving them looking like a team involved in a school yard kick about. Whatever game plan devised or worked upon at training was not executed with no remedial action taken when it was not working despite the introduction of 5 substitutes. It was plainly obvious that Fermanagh had learned more from their Division Three League final defeat to the Orchard boys in Croke Park and had concentrated on blotting out the direct ball to Murnin which had caused them so many problems in that loss. Fermanagh may have caused a shock in ousting Armagh but they caused an ever bigger one with a sensational semi-final win over Monaghan. Unbackable odds-on favourites Monaghan were ousted 1-8 to 0-10 with Eoin Donnelly flicking home the winning goal in injury time to book their place in the Ulster final. What a first year in charge of the Ernsmen for manager Rory Gallagher. 

No score from play after the 16th minute of an Ulster Championship match must be some sort of record for Armagh but it clearly shows how out of touch their forward division were on the night. Indeed whilst Armagh have notched up some good scores over the course of games since McGeeney has taken over the reins of management, a lot of their scoring comes in bursts and they have gone long spells in games where they have failed to register a score which has proven very costly. Scoring lapses are a worrying trend which Armagh need to snap out of. It is not that Armagh are not creating the chances but wrong options and bad shooting are the main contributors to this worrying blot on their copybook.

Westmeath won 4 and lost 3 of their league games and were in bullish mood heading to O’Connor Park in Portlaois to take on the home side who were the Division Four League champions unbeaten in 7 outings. Laois, courtesy of a second half hat-trick of goals from Paul Kingston, won 4-13 to 1-12 to win back-to-back Leinster championship games for the first time since 2007 having beaten Wexford in extra-time in the first round. Westmeath had lost the services of top marksman John Heslin with a hip injury but was introduced into the fray with 12 minutes to go against Laois and Vice-Captain James Dolan opted to go to the USA for the Summer. Laois problems can be gauged by the fact that only 5 players that started in the league against Armagh began the Leinster Championship defeat to Laois. 

Niall Rowland, Stephen Sheridan, Ronan Lappin and Rory Grugan were absent for the championship start against Fermanagh from the starting 15 that defeated Westmeath 2-17 to 1-11 in the league. Injured against Derry, Crossmaglen Rangers Paul Hughes is back in training and looking for a championship start. Paul’s fellow clubman James Morgan has returned from Australia and is injured, ruling out his return to the county colours. Armagh midfield, missing the injured Stephen Sheridan were totally outgunned by opponents Donnelly and Jones who bossed this sector and set up a platform for victory. The composition of the Armagh starting 15 is another conundrum as fitness questions over Grugan, Sheridan remain plus Rowland & Hall impressed off the bench so will their be changes? The named on the starting 15, Colm Watters must also be carrying an injury as he never featured off the bench against Fermanagh.

Armagh’s pathetic performance against Fermanagh can be put down to a complete off day but for me the most worrying aspect of that result was that when leaders were needed both on and off the field there were none forthcoming. Can lightening strike twice as Armagh, after a disappointing Down defeat 12 months ago in the championship,  re-grouped and went on a good qualifier run that brought them to an All-Ireland quarter final.

There were a lot harded opponents in the hat which Armagh could have been paired with as opposed to familiar foes Westmeath. The Lake County are going through a bit of a sticky patch with player availability and their woes will be added to on Saturday evening as the Orchard boys to get their championshgip season back on track with a hard fought win.Under the new qualifier rules there has to be a winner on Saturday night with extra-time and free kicks on the agenda if the teams cannot be separated.