GAA Football

Late rally from 14-man Armagh edge out Westmeath

Ethan Rafferty of Armagh scores his side's first goal late in the second half during the All-Ireland Senior Football Championship Qualifying round 2B clash between Westmeath and Armagh at TEG Cusack Park in Mullingar, Co Westmeath on Saturday Picture by Sportsfile

All-Ireland Senior Football Championship Round 2B: Westmeath 1-7 Armagh 1-12

THE thousands that flocked to Cusack Park will remember this night for a long time. The sweltering conditions and the tension were unbearable.

For 80 minutes or more the Mullingar venue was one big unruly ball of stress.

A lot of the time the football was desperately poor and error-ridden - but it was one of those anarchic nights in the Qualifiers where nobody cared about the quality.

If anything, the thousand or so mistakes in the game only made hearts in the stands and terraces thump that little bit louder.

Like stubborn mules, Armagh left the midlands on Saturday night victorious.

How they achieved it was hard to fathom.

Westmeath dominated the Ulstermen in the second half but they simply couldn't clinch the deal.

Noel Mulligan, John Heslin, Frank Boyle, James Dolan and Killian Daly will have nightmares about the chances they missed for the home side.

And with each passing wide you could see the confidence drain from Westmeath limbs.

There was so much wrong with Armagh's performance it's hard to find a starting point.

They lacked confidence and conviction when they attacked and the centre of their defence was exposed on a couple of occasions.

The entire Armagh camp owe a debt of gratitude to their goalkeeper Blaine Hughes who made a brilliant save to deny Westmeath danger man John Heslin a certain goal in the 53rd minute that would have put the home side three points ahead.

At that stage Armagh couldn't buy a possession from their kick-outs as Westmeath began turning the screw.

But the glowing parable of Saturday night was Armagh's unbreakable will and how they made a friend out of adversity.

Reduced to 14 men after Gregory McCabe was dismissed in the 54th minute for yellow and black card offences, Armagh also had to contend with losing key players Jamie Clarke and James Morgan to black cards after two minutes and 19 minutes, respectively.

Referee Padraig O'Sullivan of Kerry frustrated the life out of Armagh too, blowing over 40 times for fouls on Westmeath players.

While the visitors had grounds for complaint at times, the Armagh players didn't adjust to O'Sullivan's pedantic nature, and so the free count kept climbing.

Afterwards, Armagh selector Paddy McKeever, tasked with post-match media duties, commented: “Tonight was more about the spirit in the team in the last 10 or 15 minutes when they could have packed up and went home because everything seemed to be going against them.

“Down to 14 men, personnel missing and probably exhausted after chasing around extra men, I've nothing but respect for the effort that was put in - how smart the effort was at times was questionable.”

In their hey-day, Armagh's all-conquering class of '02 turned winning games while playing poorly into an art form.

On Saturday night, manager Kieran McGeeney – returning to the sidelines after a 12-week suspension – must have purred with satisfaction from that perspective.

‘Geezer' also deserves a lot of credit for the way in which he maximised his bench.

Second half substitutes Mark Shields, Ciaran McKeever, Ethan Rafferty and Oisin O'Neill improved Armagh.

Shields and McKeever added legs and composure when it was most needed, while Rafferty and O'Neill were the game-winners in the closing stages.

In the 64th minute, young Crossmaglen ace O'Neill broke Westmeath's defensive lines to put Armagh 0-10 to 1-6 ahead and added another crucial score in the 72nd minute that edged the Orchard men in front again.

With Westmeath wilting in the dying embers, Rafferty won the ball in the middle of the field and finished off a flowing attack involving Charlie Vernon and Niall Grimley.

Rafferty's 75th minute major finally broke Westmeath's resistance before Stefan Campbell sailed over another score for good measure to put a bit of polish on the scoreboard.

Midway through the first half things were looking decidedly rosy for the visitors.

Gavin McParland hit two fantastic scores from distance and ‘Soupy' Campbell and Stephen Sheridan repeated the dose with equally impressive points.

But, just when Armagh looked to be taking control, Westmeath cut through the visiting defence on the half hour mark to ripple the net.

Boyle's initial effort was brilliantly saved but the loose ball fell kindly to impressive midfielder Paul Sharry who found the target.

And there was still time for Heslin to find his range for a fourth time in the half to level the game at the break [1-4 to 0-7].

“Everything that Heslin touched in the first half went over,” added McKeever, “but in saying that there were a lot of soft frees awarded out there and I think if you look at things on a ratio basis – for one team to have three blacks and a red compared to what they had at the end when their discipline slipped, I'd be a little bit disappointed with that.”

In the early stages of the second half, Rory Grugan and Aidan Forker drifted forward to hit eye-catching scores for Armagh to contain their hosts but their attacks were too infrequent.

For all their territorial advantage in the second half, Westmeath couldn't make it count on the scoreboard.

They clocked up 10 second-half wides many of which should have been converted.

While there is much to improve upon for the next round of the All-Ireland Qualifiers, Armagh answered their critics on Saturday night by coping with everything that was thrown at them and dismissing the charge that they can't win tight games.

The home crowd may have howled with disapproval at Armagh's physical approach throughout Saturday night's raucous clash, but Tom Cribben had no issues.

“It's knock-out Championship,” said the Westmeath boss.

“All the northern teams seem to have a harder edge than most teams in the country. If you're going to come out of an Ulster clash, you have to develop that hard edge.

“That naivety and that lack of cynicism probably cost us. They have it. If you're going to win anything you're going to have to develop that, a little bit of it.

“But the players left the game completely behind them and they're very disappointed with themselves and they're very hard on themselves.”

On his own future, Cribben seemed to be edging towards the exit door.

“It's a massive, massive commitment,” he said.

“I have to sit down with the chairman and secretary but I also have to see if Tom Cribben is right for these players and to take them on.

“Whatever is right for Westmeath I will certainly do.”

On an unforgettable night in the midlands, Armagh marched further into the Qualifiers, bonded even more by the manner of their victory.

But there is more football in them. Much more.

Westmeath: D Quinn; M McCallon, K Maguire, J Gonoud; D Lynch, F Boyle, J Dolan; P Sharry (1-0), G Egan; J Egan, K Martin, S Duncan; K Reilly, J Heslin (0-6, 0-4 frees), K Daly Subs: T McDaniel for G Egan (28 inj), C McCormack for K Reilly (55), A Stone for S Duncan (57), N Mulligan for J Dolan (64)

Yellow cards: F Boyle (12), J Gonoud (52), Blood substitution: C McCormack for K Martin (31-34)

Black cards: M McCallon replaced by A Gardiner (66-67), J Egan replaced by A Gaughan (0-1) (66-67)

Armagh: B Hughes; A McKay, C Vernon, P Hughes; A Forker (0-1), B Donaghy, J Morgan; S Sheridan (0-1), N Grimley (0-1 free); C O'Hanlon, A Duffy, R Grugan (0-3, 0-2 frees); J Clarke, A Murnin, G McParland (0-2) Subs: M Shields for A McKay (45 inj), O O'Neill (0-2) for A Duffy (45), C McKeever for G McParland (57), E Rafferty (1-0) for C O'Hanlon (64)

Yellow cards: A Murnin (35), G McCabe (35), A Duffy (43), R Grugan (50), Sheridan (56), C O'Hanlon (61)

Red cards: G McCabe (yellow & black 35 & 54)

Black cards: J Clarke replaced by S Campbell (0-2) (2- 2); J Morgan replaced by C McCabe (19-20)

Referee: P O'Sullivan (Kerry)

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