Armagh will still be involved at business end of Championship insists ex-Westmeath stalwart Gary Connaughton

Lake County Allstar backs Orchard to bounce back from Ulster final defeat

Donegal’s Caolan McColgan and Armagh’s Conor Turbit during todays Allianz GAA Football league Div 2 final at Croke Park, Dublin.  Picture: Mark Marlow
Armagh will aim to bounce back from the disappointment of Ulster final defeat to Donegal when they take on Westmeath at the Box-It Athletic Grounds on Saturday. Picture by Mark Marlow

ARMAGH All-Ireland winner Oisin McConville has already dealt a hammer blow to Westmeath’s Championship ambitions, but a surprise victory over the Orchard could yet ignite the Lake County’s summer.

Eight days after toppling Down to claim the Division Three title, Westmeath came a cropper at the hands of McConville’s Wicklow in Portlaoise to leave them watching from the wings as the Leinster Championship unfolded.

Almost seven weeks will have passed by the time they run out at the Box-It Athletic Grounds on Saturday evening, with the landscape remarkably similar to when these counties collided on the opening weekend of last year’s All-Ireland series.

Dessie Dolan’s men fell at the first provincial hurdle then too, losing to Louth, while Armagh were plunged back into action two weeks after the disappointment of losing an Ulster final on penalties.

And, despite the disappointment of the Wicklow defeat, former Westmeath goalkeeper Gary Connaughton insists the mood hasn’t been too downbeat.

“They had a week to prepare for that game, there was such a high after beating Down in Croke Park, everybody was buzzing, so to come down then go and replicate that eight days later, it’s tough.

“They were flat for the first half of that game, just couldn’t get going, and then Ray Connellan was injured the morning of the game. He was probably our most consistent player this year, so we missed him.

“The second half they made a play for it, could’ve sneaked a win but they didn’t and they’ve had to lick their wounds and listen to the critics the last few weeks.

“They’ve played a few challenge games since, and now everybody seems to have moved on. They’ll rise to the challenge of Armagh this weekend though, then Galway and Derry after that.

“They’re three great games to have.”

Westmeath travelled to Armagh as considerable underdogs 12 months ago but could – and possibly should – have come away with victory.

They led by two heading towards the last, only for a goal from substitute Conor Turbitt to help turn the tide in the Orchard’s favour.

“They were very unlucky against Armagh, they played very well,” said the 2008 Allstar.

“Armagh didn’t look like they were taking it as serious as when they were playing in the Ulster Championship, but that’s a year ago now - just because they put up a good performance against Armagh then doesn’t mean they’re going to do it again this Saturday.

“Armagh could have a different reaction, they could blow Westmeath off the park, or it could be similar to last year. Both teams are coming off disappointing defeats, I felt sorry for Armagh losing the Ulster final on penalties two years in-a-row – it’s awful unlucky, they are a good team and Kieran McGeeney is a very good manager.

“They will still be there or thereabouts come the latter stages of the Championship.”

Having drawn with Down in Mullingar during the League, Westmeath got their tactics spot on to topple the Mournemen in the Division Three final, dropping deep and hitting Conor Laverty’s side on the break to impressive effect.

And that kind of defensive discipline will be required again if they are to trouble Armagh, feels Connaughton.

“Down were the top scorers in the division but Westmeath were able to frustrate them, and I’d say they will probably try and do the same.

“When you look at it, Westmeath beat Down, Down almost beat Armagh in the Ulster semi-final… outside of the four or five top Division teams, there isn’t a huge gulf between a lot of the rest.

“There’s not a huge amount of talk about the game in Westmeath at the minute, that’ll change as the week goes on, but I’m sure they’re itching to get back and prove a point after the Wicklow game.

“Westmeath have a lot of players who are there a good few years, the likes of John Heslin, James Dolan, Kieran Martin, Jamie Gounod… they’ve played against all the top teams at different stages, so they’ll rise to the challenge and hopefully bring the younger lads with them.”

The Tubberclair clubman will also be interested to see who starts between the sticks for Armagh, with Blaine Hughes having impressed all year while Ethan Rafferty has recently returned from injury.

“I wouldn’t be able to play that game nowadays because whenever I got to the 21 to kick out the ball - I was already panting,” said Connaughton.

“I used to base my game on Finbarr McConnell from Tyrone, and when I was playing Paidi O Se used to tell me to kick the ball down to the half-forward line, put the pressure on their half-back line; that’s all he wanted you to do.

“Goalies now are so fit, they’re bombing up and down the field… I love watching it, love the entertainment of it.”