Ciaran McKeever lauds the resilient spirit of the Armagh players after Ulster final loss

Westmeath will be as tough as last year’s All-Ireland encounter

Conor Turbitt's goal got Armagh over the line against Westmeath
Conor Turbitt in action against Westmeath during last year's All-Ireland group clash which the Orchard men won by a single point

COACH Ciaran McKeever has heaped praise on the Armagh players for the way in which they’ve responded to their gut-wrenching penalty shoot-out defeat to Donegal in the Ulster final 11 days ago as they enter the third and final stage of their season.

Twelve months ago, Armagh faced a similar scenario: they’d lost a provincial decider to Derry on penalties before being drawn to face an under-rated Westmeath side in the All-Ireland series.

That day, Armagh scrambled over the line by a point. The Orchard management would settle for a similar result on Saturday evening again.

Losing big games by the tiniest of margins has been the overriding narrative of this Armagh team in recent seasons – but McKeever has been impressed with the players’ resilience in the face of such devastating defeats.

“It was a very tough 48 hours after the final but we regrouped and we just have to get back on the horse,” he said.

“There are obviously a lot of highs and lows in this game – nothing unlike people’s personal lives, I suppose – so we were all low after the Ulster final, we can’t deny that, we put so much energy into it.

“We wanted to win a provincial title; we haven’t hidden that fact either. But we didn’t get across the line. We let the boys loose for 48 hours, it’s important that they blew some steam off as that can be a powerful thing in its own right.

“We came back in on the Tuesday night, we had a meeting, and we parked it.”

While Armagh will have had 13 days to recover from an Ulster final defeat, Westmeath have been licking their own provincial wounds ever since they fell to Oisin McConville’s Wicklow on April 7.

“It’s a funny thing because there might be people out there who maybe don’t respect a team like Westmeath and they think that we’re better than them,” McKeever said.

“And there was this whole thing about us only scraping past them last year, but in those group stage matches of the All-Ireland series Westmeath weren’t as bad as some people made out.

“They were beating Galway going into the last 15 minutes until they got a player sent off and John Heslin missed a free-kick to put Tyrone out.

“We’ve watched the game back from last year, we’ve talked about it. We started the game really well and we just weren’t clinical enough in the first 15 minutes and Westmeath hit us with 1-2 and we had to play the game on their terms which wasn’t too dissimilar to the Down game this year.

“They had blocks of possession, slowed the game to their pace and that’s very, very difficult to play against. So, we got a good warning shot from that match last year.

“We’re under no illusions again that we’re faced with a difficult challenge and it’s up to us to be on it – and that’s a big thing for us – and from a management point of view we’ve got a good response since the Ulster final.”

Eleven players who succumbed to Wicklow in April featured against Armagh last season, with key player John Heslin coming off the bench but he couldn’t save Dessie Dolan’s men from a dramatic provincial exit.

There have been minimal changes to the Armagh side over the last 12 months that edged out Westmeath 1-12 to 1-11 in their opening All-Ireland group game.

Armagh are probably still absorbing their narrow failure to land their first Anglo-Celt since 2008 – but they are in the same position as all the other contenders as the All-Ireland series gets under way this weekend.

“We’re all starting off in the same position - we’re starting a new competition,” McKeever said.

“That’s the way we’ve approached this year. Obviously, we had the League this year which was step one; the provincial Championship was step two and now we’re into step three of the year which is the All-Ireland series.

“That’s the pinnacle of the year.”

Armagh's Shane McPartlan reacts after his penalty is saved by Donegal's Shaun Patton in the Ulster SFC final in Clones
Picture: Philip Walsh
Armagh's Shane McPartlan reacts after his penalty is saved by Donegal's Shaun Patton in the Ulster SFC final in Clones Picture: Philip Walsh

Despite losing on sudden death penalties to Donegal, McKeever accentuated the positives heading into the business end of the GAA season.

“Donegal have been talked about as All-Ireland contenders, Derry as well. People have talked about the fact that as much as we haven’t found a way to beat them [in the last two Ulster finals], they haven’t found a way to beat us. Ultimately, it was down to who would blink first in a penalty shoot-out.

“A whole lot has been made of the last 20 minutes of the Ulster final. We obviously had seven possessions in that period, and we’d be very disappointed we didn’t get two or three scores out of that possession. We know if we had, the game was over.

“But you have to give Donegal huge credit, they put us under pressure, they didn’t allow us to execute things in the same manner in the 20 minutes previous to that.

“In that previous 20-25 minute period, Donegal didn’t score, you know? That’s the thing about Gaelic, people talk about the four-point lead we had – [but] a four-point lead is nothing in the modern game because of the way it’s played, the way teams keep possession and, to be fair to both teams, they were very clinical.

“We just hope if find ourselves in the some of the same situations we make better decisions against Westmeath.”