Well, what was it? A collapse, or a great comeback? A point won or a point lost?
A point won, you’d have to say. As they prepared for Sunday’s game between two teams widely tipped as prime candidates for relegation, Aidan O’Rourke and the rest of his Louth sideline crew hadn’t got the long-established Shane Lennon or Ray Finnegan to call on. Then, when it came to naming the team for this league opener, Brian White and Derek Crilly, who’d been active in the O’Byrne Cup, had to be dropped from the list, they, too, finding a way on to the treatment table.
John O’Brien’s departure after just seven minutes wasn’t helpful, either, and maybe at that point we’d have settled for it if told the game was going to end in a draw.
But between O’Brien leaving the field and Sligo referee, Martin Duffy, calling a halt, Louth turned in a terrific 60 minutes, showing nine points in front at one stage.
Putting in the kind of tackles at the back that gave referee Duffy no call to reach for the black card, or any other card for that matter, dominating at midfield, and those up front doing exactly what they’d been told, O’Rourke’s students had the Applemen scraping the barrel.
But league games nowadays run for 70 minutes – in the case of this one, 74 minutes. The grip Louth had loosened dramatically inside the final quarter, Armagh, taking their lead from the men Paul Grimley had sent in to try to break the stranglehold Louth had on midfield, picking off scores at will. The most important of them was the goal Stefan Forker claimed in the 32nd minute, the Magery clubman having to only tap in after Louth goalie, Shane McCoy, stopped, but couldn’t hold, a Stephen Campbell pile-driver from the edge of the square.
Three points still divided the sides, but Armagh were now on a roll. Four minutes were added to the regulation 35, and in that time the visitors drew level. With time almost up they were given the chance to make it an all-conquering comeback, but Oisin McKeever shot wide from a promising position.
From being a team oozing confidence and playing the game exactly as O’Rourke wanted it played, Louth were reduced to chasing shadows, unable to get in a clean tackle at the back and hardly ever finding themselves in the Armagh half.
It was a collapse to be sure, but it was before that when the damage was done. After Armagh had given a hint of a revival, scoring three times in quick succession to reduce the deficit to six points, Louth kicked on again, points from Colm Judge and the outstanding Paddy Keenan doing nicely as nerve-settlers. This was the time to go for the jugular, press on to make it two wins in-a-row in league meetings of the sides. It didn’t happen, just as it didn’t many times before.
We’d hoped we’d seen the end of these giveaways, that the lessons learnt last season would be taken on board. Wexford were left chasing the game in the second round Leinster match, but still managed to catch up and then go by; and it was the same against Kildare in the All-Ireland qualifiers, Louth’s lead standing at five points at one stage.
The substitution of Declan Byrne on Sunday? If it was made to give his replacement a run-out, then it must count as a costly mistake. The Mochta’s man was having his best game in the county colours and his departure – and Colm Judge’s – shored the team of two real ball-winners.
Not a black card in sight at the Gaelic Grounds, and that was because Martin Duffy used a bit of common sense. The difficulty could arise when it’s not one of the country’s top referees who’s taking charge.
Laois come to Drogheda on Sunday. This is a Louth must-win, because after that come games against teams who belong to a much higher plain than the O’Moores. It would be a boost to the Reds to have at least three points in the bag before facing up to them.