Lauren Boyle, left, and Denise McKenna celebrate after winning the Lidl Ladies Football National League Division 4 Final against Leitrim. Pic: Photo by Brendan Moran/Sportsfile
In the glorious Clones sunshine, the Louth ladies finally achieved a target that has alluded them for so many years, as their goal hungry attack found the net four times in the first half to lay the foundations for victory.
Having made the quarters in 2018, the league Semi-finals in 2019 and been top of the group in 2020 when Covid-19 saw that competition scrapped, there was huge expectations that Wayne Freeman’s troops would finally bag promotion.
Two Goals from Niamh Rice, coupled with efforts by Kate Flood and Lauren Boyle saw the Girls in Red go home with the Cup, despite some shaky shooting at times opening the doors for Leitrim who remained resolute up until the final whistle.
In many ways, Sunday’s Final was a tale of the first and last nine minutes - the first nine minutes saw Louth punch huge holes in the Leitrim rear guard as they plundered three goals to set up their deserved victory.
The final nine minutes, after The Connacht side had converted a penalty, finally saw them play as they have been during the League - with pace, with aggression and real intent as they cut an eight-point lead in half and saw two goal chances saved.
But in the end, they were no match for a determined Wee County outfit who won the final by four points, allowing Shannen Mclaughlin the honour of rising up the steps of St Tiernach’s Park to receive a trophy the county had never won in her first year as captain.
Louth targeted the Leitrim defence, isolating defenders and attacking at pace and the Green & Gold never truly got to grips with it throughout the game, thankful for some bad Louth misses and heroic last ditch defending at times.
Two of Louth’s four goals came off turning over the Leitrim kickout as twice Michelle Monaghan saw restarts intercepted and returned with interest as Louth put the ball in the net.
The Westerners were clearly rattled by goals from Lauren Boyle and Player of the Match Niamh Rice in the opening three minutes and when Rice added a third inside the first ten minutes, the writing was on the wall for them.
They had beaten Louth by eight points in a tempestuous game in Leitrim in the opening round of the League but it was clear that Freeman had learned the lessons of that game well, not allowing Leitrim to build up a head of steam and attacking isolated defenders with sheer pace.
Indeed, were it not for some bad misses, Louth could have been out of sight by the time the first half ended. Instead, they ended it with a seven-point lead and they managed most of the second half comfortably, matching their opponents score for score to earn promotion to Division Three for next year.
Louth put on the pressure from the off as Player of the Match Niamh Rice shot wide after just 15 seconds. From the resulting kickout, Aussie Rules star Kate Flood intercepted a poor Michelle Monaghan kickout and sent Lauren Boyle through for a goal inside 60 seconds.
They immediately added a point from Aine Breen from distance and Leitrim’s horror start got worse when a patient move ended with a ball into space for the flying Rice who gave Monaghan no chance when bagging a second Louth goal after just over three minutes play.
Leitrim tried to hit back, Michelle Guckian’s long pass over the top just evading the grasp of Bronagh O’Rourke as the Green & Gold sought to settle after their traumatic opening.
Rice added a point to leave The Wee County eight clear after just five minutes but Michell Guckian (free) and Laura O’Dowd, with a great effort on the run, hit back.
Not wanting to leave any room for a potential comeback like in their earlier meeting, Louth pushed on with purpose, looking to kill the game as early as possible.
A huge kickout from Una Pearson bypassed the Leitrim press completely, leaving an unmarked Aine Breen to charge forward before her perceptive pass freed the speedy Rice to bury the ball into the net for the third time with less then 10 minutes gone on the clock.
Guckian and Leah Fox both scored good points before the water break, but overall their side looked completely shellshocked as they spoke to their management team at the water break when trailing by 3-2 to 0-4.
Louth had a couple of bad misses before Bronagh O’Rourke and Laura O’Dowd with two excellent scores, narrowed the gap somewhat. Uncharacteristically Louth continued to miss what seemed easy chances but that didn’t seem to matter as another kickout was intercepted by Lauren Boyle.
She charged forward and fed Flood whose first shot was blocked, but the influential half-forward rifled home the rebound to deliver a huge blow to Hugh Donnelly’s team.
Guckian hit a good free after a foul on Leah Fox but it was Louth dictating the play, even if they were hitting poor wides, although Leitrim had a huge let-off when Boyle won an old-fashioned cross into the area and fed Denise McKenna who drove her shot too high and over the bar with the goals at her mercy.
Ailish Cornyn thumped a long range shot over the bar for Leitrim’s final score of the half as their management looked to the subs bench for inspiration.
Athlone soccer star Muireann Devaney, who came off the bench to score a goal against Louth in their earlier meeting, was introduced in the hope of sharpening up their underperforming attack on 25 minutes.
Louth led 4-3 to 0-8 at half time and Leitrim hoped that Devaney’s early point after a long Clancy run would kick-start a revival, however The Girls in Red had an answer to every Leitrim score, Rice pointing after good work from Lauren Boyle.
Michelle Guckian converted a close range free but Rebecca Carr fired over on six minutes. Devaney, under pressure, dragged a shot across the face of the Louth goal but a quickly taken free led to a good point from Laura O’Dowd.
It looked as though The Wee County had weathered the storm and ended any comeback hopes when Denise McKenna (free) and sub Eimear Byrne landed points just after the water break to leave them eight points clear with just over 12 minutes to play.
Guckian swapped points with Lauren Boyle and the impressive Louth full-forward should have wrapped up the game as a contest when she broke through only to blaze her effort wide with only the keeper Michelle Monaghan to beat.
That miss could have proved crucial as in the very next attack Leitrim fashioned a goal chance, Guckian winning a high ball but hammering her shot off the post only for Louth’s Aoife Russell to be penalised for colliding with Muireann Devaney as both battled for the rebound.
Referee Lorraine O’Sullivan consulted with her umpires and then pointed to spot, Ailbhe Clancy driving straight to the net to leave five points between the teams.
A great run from Devaney saw the soccer star fire over but Louth hit back immediately with a good Rice point five minutes from time. The Girls in Green were now playing like women possessed as the goal seemed to wake them up.
While much of the Louth threat came from their prolific forwards, Una Pearson in the goals was able to step up to the plate when required, making a vital save late on from Guckian whose goal would’ve left the vocal travelling supporters sweating as the final creeped into the dying minutes.
Pearson hadn’t long to wait for another big moment, as a Devaney shot was deflected towards the goalmouth, but again she showed her worth by sticking out her leg to make a great save as Louth were crown Division Four Champions for the first time.
It was a joyous occasion for all involved in the Louth setup, a team which had to deal with the setback of defeat on the opening day.
They have gone from strength to strength since then, improving with every game with an attacking performance that really needs to seen in person to be fully appreciated properly.
They will have a few weeks to enjoy the success, before hopefully utilising this experience when tackling Down and Offaly in this year’s Intermediate Championship next month.
LOUTH: Una Pearson; Eilis Hand, Sarah Quinn, Eimear Murray; Michelle McMahon, Shannen McLaughlin, Ceire Nolan; Áine Breen (0-1), Denise McKenna (0-2,0-1 Free), Aoife Russell, Rebecca Carr (0-1), Kate Flood (1-0), Laura Collins, Lauren Boyle (1-1), Niamh Rice (2-3). Subs: Eimear Byrne (0-1) for Collins (40), Seoda Matthews for Murray (44)
LEITRIM: Team: Michelle Monaghan; Mary Alice Maguire, Sinead Tighe, Siobhan McCartan; Charlene Tyrrell, Clare Owens, Carla La Guen; Áine Heslin, Ailish Cornyn (0-1); Laura O’Dowd (0-3), Leah Fox (0-1), Elise Bruen, Bronagh O’Rourke(0-1), Michelle Guckian (0-6,0-5 frees), Roisin McHugh. Subs: Ailbhe Clancy (1-0 pen) for McHugh (21), Muireann Devaney (0-2) for O’Rourke (25), Vivienne Egan for Fox (35), Shaylyn Ward for Bruen (50), Siomha Quinn for Heslin (59)
Referee: Lorraine O’Sullivan (Donegal)
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