Sports

Armagh win ugly in Westmeath .

Tuesday, 11 July 2017

Armagh win ugly in Westmeath  . thumbnailWESTMEATH'S John Heslin with Brendan Donaghy of Armagh ŠINPHO/Tom Beary

IT'S the score count that matters not the foul count. That's what was said by a supporter at the final whistle in Mullingar in what was a woefully hard game to watch but brilliant to win.


Westmeath...1-7
Armagh...1-12

Difficult but attritional, niggly and nasty was how it became, with a red, five black and eight yellow cards being awarded in a game where the referee was 'booed off' the field. There was too, by some decisions made and others overlooked, a suspicion that officials held a degree of bias against Armagh.

It was a titanic struggle during which the sides were level five times with both teams having their periods of domination.

Overall Armagh were the better side, especially in the trauma felt by the losing of key players to black cards and red cards at crucial times. Pivotal to their success was the judicious use of four subs at a critical period midway through the second half. Two - Mark Shields and Kieran McKeever helped to stifle Westmeath's attack while also being significantly involved in the build up of vital scores and two more - Oisin O'Neill and Ethan Rafferty, as well as being excellent link men, their scores of two points (Oisin) and a goal (Ethan) guaranteed a welcome victory for Armagh.

There were times towards the end of both halves that Armagh showed the potential of their earlier league campaign of building a lead only to let it slip away. This time it was clear they (management and players) had the know-how and conviction of closing out the game to secure victory.

A look at the scoring pattern of both sides in the game highlights clearly how Armagh were the more deserving and better side. Westmeath opened with back-to-back points only for Armagh to reply with three without reply.

Westmeath landed a single but in response Armagh shot four points without reply. Westmeath finished the half with back-to-back scores (one a goal) to see the sides level at the interval. Come the second half, Westmeath again opened with a brace for Armagh to confidently reply with three unanswered points giving them back a lead they would not let slip. Westmeath did level the game with a single to end their scoring.

To be fair to Westmeath, in the next five minutes either side of normal time up, they missed five gilt edged chances (one a very dubious free) to secure victory.

Given that reprieve, Armagh were not going to be denied and in injury time three scores without reply - an Oisin O'Neill point to take the lead, an Ethan Rafferty insurance goal for a four point lead, and a Stefan Campbell effort to seal the win, just over seven minutes into injury time.

The game began explosively within the first five minutes of the start, as the referee, on the advice of the linesman, gave Jamie Clarke a harsh black card after a shoulder on a defender off the ball. Stefan Campbell replaced Jamie but Armagh's composure was ruffled and in the opening minutes John Heslin converted a brace of frees. By the 13th minute, Armagh had steadied the ship somewhat and with advantage ball, but not enough, going in points by Stefan Campbell, Gavin McParland and Niall Grimley established a 3-2 lead.

John Heslin equalised soon after but Armagh now held the greater control and attacks were plentiful. Those plentiful attacks hid the fact that for a large part of the game, the centre of Armagh's defence was wide open. The attacks also brought reward in the form of four points without reply from Gavin McParland, Rory Grugan (2 frees) and Stephen Sheridan. Armagh had now a four point cushion lead and it looked as if they could extend that lead greatly.

As sometimes happens, misfortune struck as a sweeping move through Armagh's hollow middle ended with a blasted volley brilliantly saved and parried away by Orchard 'keeper Blaine Hughes. The rebound fell straight to the supporting Paul Sharry who easily sent the ball to the net. Just before the half time whistle, John Heslin sent over his fourth point for the equaliser on a scoreline of 1-4 to 0-7.

On the restart, it was Westmeath who began the brighter, especially after losing their captain Ger Egan to injury in the first half. Gregory McCabe had replaced James Morgan (black carded midway through the first half) and Armagh were beginning to feel the loss of their two 'Cross' men, Jamie and James.

That bright start saw John Heslin's brace (1 free) bring his score total to six and Westmeath were beginning to look the hungrier. The niggly, nasty fouling and attritional encounters were increasing as the half wore on. Armagh, at last, settled into a probing rhythm and the equalised after Rory Grugan and Aidan Forker landed points. Misfortune struck again as Gregory McCabe was black carded and Armagh were reduced to 14 men.

Ciaran McKeever and Oisin O'Neill came on and a visible spirit rose in Armagh despite the game becoming stagnant and scoreless for 10 tense minutes. It was Armagh then who sparked to life with Aidan Forker's short free to Rory Grugan ending by giving Armagh back the lead with just seven minutes left.

Armagh embarked on a high risk period of recycling which brought no scores or Westmeath turnovers and at last the referee deemed to black card two Westmeath players, John Egan and Mark McCallan.

As the recycling continued, Armagh paid the price for the process as a dubious free was awarded against them and Westmeath's free initiated attack ended with substitute Alan Gaughan landing the equalizer.

Westmeath attacked strongly but rushed shots produced confidence sapping wides. Four minutes into injury time, Armagh seized the initiative and feeling Westmeath were spent Ciaran McKeever's pass found Oisin O'Neill who confidently posted another lead point.

Armagh were now pressing high up on this kick-out with Ethan Rafferty fielding to feed Charlie Vernon for a pass to Niall Grimley and as the onrushing Ethan Rafferty came off his shoulders, Niall's deft pass was calmly side footed home by Ethan. Armagh were four up but there were three minutes left.

Blaine Hughes slid out to smother a Westmeath attack and as the ball was cleared it sped through Mark Shields and Andrew Murnin for Stefan Campbell to seal a deserved and hard fought, hard earned sweet victory. Armagh had won the battle of Mullingar.

Goalkeeper Blaine Hughes made three brilliant saves at critical moments which kept Armagh's push for victory strong and alive. McKeever, Shields, Rafferty and O'Neill came on at a time when Armagh's drive and desire were flagging and they certainly help create a turbo-charged purpose and approach which produced a welcome win.

Niall Grimley by his aerial, passing and scoring ability is fast establishing himself as one of the central blocks of the team. Stefan Campbell worked tirelessly all game and his hunger for action appears to be full on. Considering Westmeath - seven National League games, one Division final and two Leinster Championship wins - were unbeaten until hammered by Dublin, the Midlanders were worthy and difficult opponents and so Armagh's performance against them is one to be commended.

Armagh '16th man' - their horde of loyal supporters played their part to the full by their huge numbers, positive vocal support and colourful display of Armagh jerseys worn with pride and affection.

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, 1f), C O'Hanlon, A Duffy, R Grugan (0-3, 2f), J Clarke, A Murnin, G McParland (0-2). Subs: S Campbell (0-2) for Clarke 2 (black card), G McCabe for Morgan 20 (black card), O O'Neill (0-2) for Duffy 44, M Shields for McKay 44, C McKeever for Mc- Parland 57, E Rafferty (1-0) for O'Hanlon 64.

Westmeath: D Quinn, M McCallon, K Maguire, J Gonoud, J Dolan, F Boyle, D Lynch, G Egan, S Duncan, J Egan, P Sharry (1-0), K Reilly, K Daly, K Martin, J Heslin (0-6 4f). Subs: T McDaniel for G Egan 28, C McCormack for Martin 31 - 34 (blood) and for Reilly 55, A Stone for Duncan 56, N Mulligan for Lynch 60, A Gardiner for McCallon 66 (black card), A Gaughan (0-1) for J Egan 66 (black card).

Referee: Padraig O'Sullivan (Kerry).

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