LOUTH got the massive boost they needed heading into the Leinster Championship as they finally got the monkey off their backs and lifted a trophy after prevailing in a final.
With five minutes left on the clock, Louth led by two points. It was ominous and the tension palpable because of the events of last summer. But this Louth team have seemingly learned their lesson the hard way and came through in the end. Not only did they hang on, but they pushed on, kicking three points in the last three minutes to put the game beyond Westmeath.
In their last three competitive finals, two O’Byrne Cup deciders against UCD and Kildare and of course the Leinster Final from last year, Louth surrendered the trophies all in the last five minutes so seeing them finish the job off and so strongly certainly was a relief to all in red and white.
Those dark Sundays when Louth lost to Offaly, Limerick and that despairing Saturday night loss to Cavan seem like they never happened now as Paddy Keenan and co got to climb the steps of Croke Park to lift the Division Three title.
Yes, the trophy they would have liked to lift at Headquarters was the Delaney Cup, but enough column inches have been given to that. Although it was not the Leinster crown, claiming this piece of silverware has all but put that to bed now.
Making a number of changes from the Waterford game, Fitzpatrick brought Sean Connor, Paraic Smith, Andy McDonnell and Paraic Smith back into the starting 15.
Thankfully on this occasion, the changes worked as Louth clicked from the outset, taking advantage of the wide surface at Croker.
Terrific hits from midfielder Brian Donnelly and marauding half-back Liam Shevlin eased Louth’s nerves in the early going with a Conor Lynam point sandwiched in between them.
Derek Crilly, who had an excellent game filling in as an extra defender fed Ronan Carroll in for his first point and Louth’s third as the Mary’s man, cleverly deployed at full-forward in the absense of Shane Lennon, found the target.
Lynam responded as he got the better of Aaron Hoey, an intriguing tussle that lasted the entire 70 minutes, but Louth replied through Carroll again.
Paraic Smith then had a glorious chance to net but his goal bound effort was blocked by Francis Boyle, a let-off for Westmeath.
Adrian Reid’s delicious score from distance after Keenan found him in space put Louth 0-5 to 0-2 ahead, but Westmeath cut the deficit with points from Lynam, two and one from Paul Greville. At a crucial time, just before half time, the Lake County took a 0-7 to 0-6 lead as Lynam and Denis Glennon swept through the Louth back line to put them ahead by the minimum.
Derek Maguire was introduced at half time and the Young Irelands hotshot didn’t take long to settle into the game as he used his lightning pace to set up the first score of the second half as he lashed the ball over the bar.
Lynam and Glennon added further scores to put Westmeath 0-11 to -8 ahead, but showing a new found maturity, Louth rallied and launched a comeback, keeping Westmeath scoreless for the next ten minutes. In that time, inspired once again by captain marvel, Paddy Keenan, the Wee County stood up and brought their A-game. Smith got his score after some frustrating moments in front of goal, before Keenan popped up on the right hand side to finish a patient build-up.
Clenching his fist to spur his teammates on, the captain’s image on the big screen at Croker depicted everything about Louth’s campaign this year as he has led from the front on many occasions.
On Saturday night though, the players around him banded together and took the game by the scruff of the neck. Donnelly, under pressure hit a beautiful free from the floor on 55 minutes to take Louth level, but the next score, from Greville put them behind once again, that is until JP Rooney was introduced.
The wily veteran, who has been used on more than one occasion this year as an impact sub certainly made his presence felt a minute after his introduction as he got his fist onto a loose ball to put it past the Westmeath defence.
Taking it on the floor soccer style, Rooney raced towards goal, but his shot lacked the venom needed to beat Connaughton in the Westmeath goal.
It did though have enough to make Connaughton spill it into the running path of Ronan Carroll who tapped it into an empty net to put Louth 1-11 to 0-12 ahead with ten minutes remaining.
At this stage Croke Park was in virtual darkness as someone forgot to turn the floodlights on, making the task that little bit harder for the players.
As the Louth supporters who travelled started to bite down on their nails, Keenan with a free and a score from play eased their nerves.
And when Ray Finnegan and Maguire slotted over late scores it finally ended a run of losing finals for Peter Fitzpatrick’s team and gave them the spring in their step that they needed before taking another crack at the Leinster Championship again this year, starting with a tricky test against Carlow on June 12.
Scorers – LOUTH: Ronan Carroll (1-2), Paddy Keenan (0-3, 1f) Derek Maguire (0-2), Brian Donnelly (0-2, 1f), Liam Shevlin, Adrian Reid, Andy McDonnell, Paraic Smith, Ray Finnegan, all (0-1).
WESTMEATH: Paul Greville (0-6, 1f), Conor Lynam (0-5, 1f), Denis Glennon (0-2).
Louth: Sean Connor; Eamonn McAuley, Aaron Hoey, Gerard Hoey; Ray Finnegan, Dessie Finnegan, Liam Shevlin; Paddy Keenan, Brian Donnelly; Derek Crilly, Mark Brennan, Adrian Reid; Paraic Smith, Ronan Carroll, JP Rooney.
Subs: Jamie Carr for Gerard Hoey (H/T), Derek Maguire for Mark Brennan (H/T), Stephen Fitzpatrick for Eamonn McAuley (53mins), JP Rooney for Paraic Smith (59mins). Westmeath: Gary Connaughton; Francis Boyle, Kieran Gavin, John Gaffey; Ger Egan, Aidan Finnan, Doran Harte; Brendan Murtagh, Denis Corcoran; Paul Sharry, David Glennon, Conor Lynam; Paul Greville, James Dolan, Denis Glennon.
Subs: Kevin Maguire for John Gaffey (52mins), Kieran Martin for Aidan Finnan (52mins), Simon Quinn for Doran Harte (64mins), Michael Curley for Paul Sharry (66mins).
Wides – LOUTH: 12 (7 first half), WESTMEATH: 8 (4 first half).
Bookings – LOUTH: Paddy Keenan (44mins), Ray Finnegan (56mins), Stephen Fitzpatrick (72mins), Adrian Reid (74mins).
WESTMEATH: Ger Egan (61mins).
Referee: Rory Hickey (Clare).