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Armagh have no time for Ulster final hangover as Westmeath return for All-Ireland opener

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All-Ireland Senior Football Championship Group One, round one: Armagh v Westmeath (Saturday, Box-IT Athletic Grounds, 6pm)

IS it the manager? Is it the players? Why can’t Armagh find that final shove to get over the line in Championship games that really matter?

Over the past two weeks there’s been no end of debate and no definitive answer because it’s a bit of both: Management have to carry the can for the team’s failure to see out games and players have to shoulder the blame for the shootout losses. Then again – using the old chicken-and-egg analogy – there’d be no need for shootouts if the games were wrapped up before the final whistle.

As Kieran McGeeney said at the start of the season: “When we lose, the buck stops with me”.

But his team really should be Ulster champions. Fifteen minutes before the end in Clones a fortnight ago it seemed Armagh’s time had finally come. You looked at Aidan Forker and thought: ‘He’s going to be lifting the Anglo-Celt’ but Donegal rallied and, incredibly, the Orchardmen lost a fifth (one McKenna Cup and four in the Championship) shootout.

The visit of Westmeath is the start of a new competition and, on paper at least, a fresh start. If this was a League game, you’d fancy Armagh to win it with plenty to spare. Man for man they are the better side but what has the loss to Donegal done to the psyche of the Armagh players?

Have they become immune to setbacks at this stage, or will there be a hangover from Clones?

Last year – at this stage, against the same opposition – Armagh looked groggy and stiff and were licking their wounds after losing to Derry.

They struggled to get going against up-for-it Westmeath and needed a late goal from Conor Turbitt to get them out of jail.

Rian O'Neill in action for Armagh.
Rian O’Neill misses out for Armagh against Westmeath

Rian O’Neill scored four points in that game but he misses out this time. The Crossmaglen Rangers midfielder limped off deep into extra-time in the Ulster final and hasn’t been included in the squad.

Clann Eireann clubman Tiernan Kelly replaces him in midfield alongside Ben Crealey and they will form Armagh’s seventh centrefield pairing this season after Crealey and Rian O’Neill had started all three Ulster games.

McGeeney has opted to keep some aces up his sleeve. Oisin O’Neill, so impressive in a substitute appearance against Donegal, is once again named on the bench and so too is Aidan Nugent who turned the tide against Down and almost did the same a fortnight ago.

Win, lose or draw, there’s rarely a dull moment with Armagh but Westmeath have been out of the spotlight since their surprise loss to Wicklow in their first Leinster Championship outing.

Fresh from beating Down in the Division Three final, Dessie Dolan’s side fell six points behind in the first half and the Armagh management will have noted how the Westmeath full-back line failed to deal with routine high balls into the square thanks to some Keystone Cops defending. Two up-and-unders led to Wicklow goals and that turned out to be enough for them to withstand a second half comeback from the favourites.

So Westmeath have been out of action since April 7 giving them ample time to prepare for Armagh who have come through the fire of the Ulster Championship and, with skipper Kevin Maguire returning at full-back, the Midlanders won’t make it easy for their hosts.

Manager Dolan was one of the finest forwards of his generation but his team is built on safety-first foundations. In the Division Three final they won a counterattacking battle with Down and showed the scoring quality to pick off the Mournemen. Sam McCartan (0-4 from wing-back) and Jonathan Lynam, scorer of both goals, got the headlines and Ray Connellan is a quality performer in midfield while Luke Loughlin, who recently spoke so honestly about his recovery from cocaine, alcohol and gambling addictions, is a creative force alongside veteran John Heslin.

Westmeath are a capable outfit but Armagh’s mindset will dictate the pattern of this game. McGeeney has kept faith with the team that came so close again but there may be players in it who could be forgiven for thinking that it’s not going to happen for them at Championship level. Those doubts have to be banished from the dressingroom because last year’s escape was a warning to Armagh that they cannot expect to feel their way back into Championship football.

This has to be a home-banker for Armagh because – with a trip to Celtic Park to face Derry to follow – defeat will leave them in a perilous position.

Rian O’Neill’s loss is a blow but Armagh have coped without him before and the pace and skill of Oisin Conaty – who threatened to cut loose against Donegal – and Conor Turbitt should cause the Westmeath defence serious problems.

Once again Armagh are hoping for the 70-minute performance and McGeeney has named an attacking line-up which suggests the home side intend to start on the front foot and give Westmeath no time to settle.

If they do that, Armagh should win this comfortably. Anything less and they may need another grandstand finish.

Armagh: B Hughes; P Burns, A McKay, P McGrane; C O’Neill, Ciaran Mackin, A Forker; T Kelly, B Crealey; J McElroy, R Grugan, S Campbell; O Conaty, A Murnin, C Turbitt

Westmeath: J Daly; J Gonoud, K Maguire, J Dolan; S McCartan, R Wallace, D Lynch; R Connellan, A McCormack; J Lynam, R O’Toole, C Dillon; L Loughlin, J Heslin, R Forde

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