Armagh retrace their steps to Westmeath in search of Championship victory
All-Ireland Senior Football Championship Qualifying round one: Westmeath v Armagh (today, Cusack Park, Mullingar, throw-in 7pm)
ARMAGH have been here before. This time last year the Orchardmen sailed close to the wind in Mullingar in round two of the Qualifiers before a late rally saw them clinch a morale-boosting victory and a run of form that took them all the way to the All-Ireland quarter-finals.
Of course, Armagh have been in this position before too. They played in the first round of the Qualifiers in the previous three seasons after early exits in Ulster and so far they've lost once, back in 2016 against Laois.
Despite winning Division Three, the culmination of those provincial failures and the memory of last year's drubbing from Tyrone has added an extra edge to this game and increased the pressure on Armagh manager Kieran McGeeney and his players today.
After a worryingly flat performance against Fermanagh in the Ulster quarter-final at Brewster Park three weeks ago, McGeeney admitted “the buck stops with me” and it will if Armagh don't get the win this evening.
But county managers shouldn't countenance defeat on the eve of a Championship game and McGeeney and his team will believe that one win will see them put Enniskillen behind him and allow them push on towards the Super8s.
Up against them this evening is a Westmeath side that won four out of their first five games in the League (the loss was to Armagh) but haven't registered a victory since back-to-back losses closed out the League and a 4-13 to 1-12 hammering from Laois began their Championship season in the Leinster quarter-finals.
Midfield driving force and free-taker John Heslin was only fit to start from the bench that day and, without him and Darragh Daly, the midlanders struggled.
Heslin has not been named in the starting line-up by manager Colin Kelly whose team includes only six of the players who started against Armagh last year. Westmeath had the Orchardmen on the rack in that game but they couldn't – or Armagh wouldn't allow them too – finish the job off.
The Orchard county are without four of their starters from last year - James Morgan (injured), Niall Grimley (suspended) and Ciaran O'Hanlon and Jamie Clarke (unavailable).
Madden clubman Grimley gives Armagh bite in midfield and, on his day, is a very useful option from long-range frees and 45s which is an area that Armagh will have to improve on to win this evening so the return to fitness of Rory Grugan – who was introduced as a sub against Fermanagh and landed two points from placed balls – is timely. Meanwhile, with Grimley suspended and Ben Crealey injured, Stephen Sheridan is poised to return from injury.
Grange full-forward Ethan Rafferty was the match-winner in last year's Qualifier with a late goal and the Westmeath defence – minus cruciate victim Alan Stone today - could not handle his power and pace in the League match back in February.
Rafferty finished with six points in a game that ended in a deserved win for the Ulster visitors.
It shouldn't be forgotten that Westmeath actually took the lead – James Dolan punched home their goal during a second half purple patch which, along with some poor finishing early in the first half, kept them in the game.
The entire Armagh squad and management team will have been stung by the criticism they received in the wake of that Fermanagh defeat and this is a massive test of character for them.
Only a whistle-to-whistle display will do for Armagh this evening because if they switch off and let Westmeath into the game, they will struggle to turn it around.
Can Armagh drag themselves back up off the floor after their loss in Fermanagh? Yes, they have the players to win this game, but they have to produce. A good start will be essential and Armagh will hope that Rafferty, Andrew Murnin and Grugan see plenty of the ball early on and lay the foundations for a morale-boosting win.
Westmeath: K Fagan; M McCallon, S Duncan, J Gonoud; J Egan, N Mulligan, B Sayeh; D Corroon, D Daly; K Martin, R O'Toole, G Egan; L Loughlin, J Connellan, C McCormack