Agony as late Armagh goal denies Westmeath
All-Ireland SFC Group 2, Round 1: Armagh 1-13 Westmeath 1-12
You don't always get what you deserve in sport and this was one of those occasions as a very impressive Westmeath display yielded no tangible reward at the Athletic Grounds on Saturday evening.
Ultimately, a late goal from lively substitute Conor Turbitt proved decisive in turning the game in Armagh's favour. Westmeath had led for the majority of this gripping contest until Turbitt struck for a goal with more than a slice of good fortune attached. Rian O'Neill sent a high ball goalwards which hung in the air, the threatening Andrew Murnin broke it down and Turbitt fired the loose ball to the net.
That 67th-minute goal put Armagh 1-11 to 1-10 ahead but Westmeath responded by drawing a free from which the excellent John Heslin equalised. With the game on a knife edge in the frenetic close stages, points from Murnin and Ciarán Mackin gave Armagh a two-point lead, and another pointed free from Heslin was all Westmeath could muster in response.
Westmeath may have let a winning position slip again, but the overall performance was a much different story than the fadeout against Louth. On this occasion, there was certainly no collapse and Westmeath's admirable display deserved at least a share of the spoils.
Given the calibre of opposition and the venue - with the vast majority of the almost 11,000 crowd backing Armagh - this was Westmeath's best championship performance in several years. Sadly, however, there was a sense of deep disappointment at the finish as the Lake men left empty handed.
Dessie Dolan's side had terrific displays all over the pitch, such as Kevin Maguire (typically warrior-like in curbing the threat of Rian O'Neill), David Lynch, John Heslin, Ronan O'Toole, Sam Duncan and Sam McCartan.
Lady Luck gave the visitors the cold shoulder on the evening as, in addition to that rather fortunate Armagh goal, the Westmeath camp could point to a number of marginal refereeing calls which went against them.
Westmeath were also left to rue some missed chances from dead balls and open play in the second half, while the impact from the bench again proved a talking point. Jonathan Lynam was introduced at half-time but was replaced before the end, as he paid the price for losing possession on a few occasions. And it was mystifying that Lorcan Dolan, a major contributor of scores in last year's Tailteann Cup success, was not introduced at all.
On a lovely sunny afternoon, Westmeath were aided by the breeze which was stronger than it appeared from the press box. John Heslin sent over a fine point inside the opening 30 seconds to settle Westmeath, before Armagh went in front through scores by Rory Grugan and Stefan 'Soupy' Campbell (capping off some patient play). Westmeath then had a let-off when Armagh took a close range free quickly and Rian O'Neill fired wide with the net gaping. An apparent foul on Senan Baker went unpunished but Westmeath were somewhat fortunate that Armagh were wasteful with scoring chances early on.
In the 15th minute, Westmeath struck for a splendid goal. Heslin's pass was added to by a deft flick by Stephen Smith into Ronan O'Toole. The St Loman's player finished to the net in composed fashion. This confidence-boosting goal was followed by points from Sam McCartan (whose return to the team was a major plus) and Luke Loughlin (an outrageous score).
With Westmeath guilty of some needless fouls, the Orchard men responded with two pointed frees from O'Neill and Grugan. At the other end, an off-the-ball foul, seemingly on James Dolan, was punished by Heslin, before McCartan and Loughlin set up the elusive O'Toole for a right-footed point. That left Westmeath leading by four points (1-5 to 0-4) for the second time.
Armagh applied pressure in response and scored three points on the trot, the first from a contentious free. Campbell then notched his second point before a Westmeath turnover near the sideline almost led to a goal. A foul by the back tracking Heslin on O'Neill was close to being in the square; in any case, Grugan clipped over the free.
Heslin underlined his freetaking prowess from about 47 metres and, in stoppage time, hard-working midfielder Sam Duncan sent over a point after good work by Loughlin. And so, Westmeath led by 1-7 to 0-7 at half-time.
Shortly after the restart, Heslin was unlucky to see his point attempt hit the upright and Armagh managed to grab the loose ball. A strong and legitimate 'hit' by Duncan underlined the determination in the Westmeath ranks as the Milltownpass man, along with Ray Connellan, continued to compete strongly in the midfield battle.
A lengthy bout of controlled possession football lasting minutes ended with Westmeath drawing a free but Loughlin was unable to convert. The first score of the second half didn't arrive until the 49th minute, Murnin the scorer. O'Neill then pointed neatly from an acute angle, cutting Westmeath's lead to the minimum.
Heslin replied with a classy left-footed point following good work by Lynch and McCartan. Points were exchanged between Murnin and Loughlin (after Heslin's fine catch). Lynch finished off some patient build-up play with a 61st-minute point, making it 1-10 to 0-10, and belief was now rising in the Westmeath ranks.
After O'Neill reduced the deficit (a free), his booming delivery eventually led to Turbitt's crucial goal. And though Westmeath drew level through Heslin, Armagh went two clear with points from the irrepressible Murnin (following a disputed 'hop ball') and Ciarán Mackin (with the chance created by goalkeeper Ethan Rafferty and O'Neill).
Westmeath hit two wides, one of them from a Loughlin free, struck amid a chorus of boos from the raucous home crowd. Heslin drew his side closer, pointing a late free after Murnin's cynical foul on Loughlin led to a black card, but Armagh held on grimly.
Considering the performance Westmeath produced in this game, this squad of players deserves plenty of support when Connacht champions Galway come to Mullingar this Saturday evening (throw-in 5pm).
Man of the match: Ronan O'Toole was awarded the official accolade but there were plenty of contenders on the Westmeath side and this observer just about opts for tireless worker David Lynch, with John Heslin, Sam Duncan, Kevin Maguire, Sam Duncan and the aforementioned O'Toole all contenders. For Armagh, Andrew Murnin was very influential in the second half and Stefan Campbell was full of endeavour in addition to scoring two points.
Talking point: Despite the eventual defeat, the quality of the Westmeath display was a source of encouragement to the handful of visiting fans who travelled to Armagh city. Indeed, Tyrone legend Peter Canavan described it as "a brilliant performance" when on analysis duty for RTE.
Match officials: Westmeath seemed to bear the brunt of some inconsistent calls from the referee. For example, Ray Connellan was surrounded in possession near the sideline in the closing stages and Armagh were awarded a free. A couple of minutes later, an Armagh player was in a similar situation but this time a 'hop ball' was awarded from which the home side won possession, and ensuing play led to Andrew Murnin's crucial lead point.
What's next: 2022 All-Ireland finalists Galway are coming to TEG Cusack Park on Saturday evening (throw-in 5pm). Can Westmeath shake off the disappointment of losing out at the death and build on the positives as they prepare to face the highly rated Tribesmen?
Scorers - Armagh: R O'Neill 0-4 (3f); C Turbitt 1-0; A Murnin and R Grugan (2f) 0-3 each; S Campbell 0-2; C Mackin 0-1. Westmeath: J Heslin 0-6 (4f); R O'Toole 1-1; L Loughlin 0-2; S Duncan, S McCartan and D Lynch 0-1 each.
Armagh: Ethan Rafferty; James Morgan, Aaron McKay, Aidan Forker; Greg McCabe, Conor O'Neill, Jarly Óg Burns; Ben Crealey, Ciaran Mackin; Rory Grugan, Jason Duffy, Stefan Campbell; Andrew Murnin, Rian O'Neill, Aidan Nugent. Subs: Barry McCambridge for Morgan (inj., 23 mins), Conor Turbitt for Nugent (45), Ross McQuillan for Burns (49), Shane McPartlan for Forker (62), Callum Cumiskey for Duffy (65).
Westmeath: Jason Daly, Jack Smith, Kevin Maguire, Jamie Gonoud; James Dolan, Andy McCormack, David Lynch, Sam Duncan, Ray Connellan; Sam McCartan, Ronan O'Toole, Senan Baker; Luke Loughlin, John Heslin, Stephen Smith. Subs: Jonathan Lynam for Baker (h-t); Ronan Wallace for J Smith (inj., 47 mins); Kieran Martin for S Smith (55); Eoin Mulvihill for Lynam (72).
Referee: Fergal Kelly (Longford).