The Louth players celebrating after the final whistle in Ballinamore. (Photo: Willie Donnellan/Leitrim Observer)
Lory Meagher Cup Round Five
LEITRIM 2-16 LOUTH 2-18
John Connolly in Ballinamore
What a turnaround in fortunes it has been for the Louth Hurlers. Not even the most ardent followers of the small ball in the Wee County could have envisaged two weeks ago that they would be looking forward to another All-Ireland Final.
Their fate looked sealed following losses to both Longford and Monaghan, the loss to the Farney Men a real blow having had their number recently. In the end it was Monaghan’s mistake which gave Paul McCormack’s charges a chance to regroup.
An illegible player in their meeting saw Louth awarded the victory and with it their title prospects were back. They duly blew away Cavan to set up what was a de-facto Semi-final. They managed to get over the line, but boy did they have to earn their date in Croker. Saturday’s clash was pulsating.
Leitrim went into the tie in Pairc Sheain Ui Eslin in Ballinamore on Saturday as the form team in the competition, recent results meaning a draw for Olcan Conway's troops would seal their place in the final. And going into additional time they looked on course to deliver just that.
Gavin O'Hagan nervelessly struck two superb frees to tie the scores as four minutes of added time commenced and with momentum behind them and burgeoning belief among a raccuous home support in the stands, it seemed as if Leitrim were heading to HQ.
They must have felt it was the least they deserved after lady luck shone bright on Louth when Jamie McDonnell's long free from inside his own half landed in the net and propelled the Wee County into the lead with less than three minutes to go.
But when it mattered most the men in Red stepped up to the plate and eked out the win they needed to get through, taking their chances while Leitrim failed in their bid to land a final killer blow.
Karl McDermott fired wide for the hosts when a point looked his for the taking. Meanwhile Mark Gahan edged Louth ahead in the third minute of added time before both Joe Murray and Aaron McDermott failed in their bids to score for Leitrim.
After mopping up possession from McDermott, Louth cleared long, Liam Molloy making a superb catch in the midst of two Leitrim players.
He duly broke through their challenges and surged forward to set up Paul Matthews for the coup de grace in the last act of an epic contest that belied its status as hurling's lowest rung of the ladder. Suddenly Louth had booked their place in a second Lory Meagher Cup final in three years.
These teams served up a thrilling encounter that swung from one team to another as the Leitrim and Louth hurlers demonstrated immense commitment and fantastic skills.
Louth got off to a fantastic start and led by four points after 20 minutes when James McNabola scored an excellent goal for the hosts. Louth again surged clear in the second half, opening up a six-point lead before Brendan Delaney's clever batted finish threw this game right into the balance.
However, despite any late comeback the stats don’t lie and when you look at both teams shooting it was clear one team were far more efficient.
Leitrim notched 17 wides to Louth's six, 11 in the first half alone. In a game decided by two points, that says all that needs to be said as Louth’s accuracy was key to the win. However, McCormack will surely know that they cannot let Longford in for as many scoring opportunities next weekend.
Leitrim opened the scoring with a Gavin O’Hagan free, but the deadly Darren Geoghegan replied with three for Louth inside the next two minutes, two from placed balls before a turnover allowed Paul Matthews to put Louth three clear.
James McNabola and O’Hagan (free) had wides before Geoghegan fired over a free after a Stephen Goldrick foul but good work from Cathal O’Donovan and Joe Murray freed Diarmuid Kelleher for a tenth minute point.
Leitrim rallied with Brendan Delaney and Joe Murray firing over two rapid fire scores but wides from Kevin Clerkin, Delaney and McNabola and a good catch from keeper Ruairi Morrisey from a David McGovern shot meant that Louth increased their lead with points from Matthews and Peter Fortune.
But when Leitrim turned over a Louth defender, Joe Murray managed to get the ball to James McNabola and the Eslin man produced a typical clinical finish to reignite Leitrim’s challenge.
Feidhlim Joyce hit back with a point for Louth, but Leitrim really should have had a second goal when Morrisey made a wonderful save from Murray who had torched the Louth defence, McNabola shooting into the side netting in the follow up.
Liam Molloy had a Louth point sandwiched by two O’Hagan scores before Kelleher fired over excellently from distance with three minutes left in the half. Leitrim were still missing chances with O’Hagan, Murray and McNabola all missing the target.
Geoghegan added a free before registering his team’s sole wide of the first half from another placed ball while O’Hagan finished the scoring in the first half, leaving the sides level at 1-8 to 0-11 at the halftime interval.
Joyce and Kelleher swapped points in the first couple of minutes of the second half before keeper Clement Cunniffe did well to keep a long-range Louth effort from going over the bar. Leitrim had three more wides, allowing Louth to stretch their lead with another Geoghegan free.
More costly for Leitrim was James McNabola being denied a goal, not once but three times, by keeper Morrisey and defenders Andrew Smith and Adam Plunkett who all made goal line clearances.
Louth got away on the double with a push in the back of David McGovern not being spotted and Darren Geoghegan pointing. And the Louth sharpshooter escaped more serious caution for an off-the-ball clash that left Martin Feeney sprawled on the ground, referee Caymon Flynn opting to flash yellow rather than red.
Sean Kerrisk stretched the Louth lead to three points before Seanie Crosbie’s excellent catch in the middle of the park led to a long delivery to Geoghegan and he made no mistake with the finish to double Louth’s lead on 28 minutes.
Credit Leitrim as Karl McDermott profited from some fabulous stickwork from Martin Feeney out on the wing to score before a long ball to Joe Murray saw him make a great catch and take off on the run before finding Brendan Delaney on the burst.
The Carrick hurler had a lot of work to do still but burst through the Louth defence and then batted the ball past the Louth keeper for a huge goal on 52 minutes.
James McNabola followed up with a wide before Geoghegan and O’Hagan swapped scores. The wides continued to mount for Leitrim with Conor Hackett and O’Hagan missing the posts, but great work from Murray under fierce pressure set O’Hagan up for a great score with less that nine minutes to go.
From the puckout, Leitrim turned the ball over and worked it in to Diarmuid Kelleher who blazed the sliotar over the crossbar with the goal there for the taking. But that point levelled the scores and when O’Hagan tapped over a free, Leitrim seemed on the road to victory.
However Jamie McDonnell’s free from inside his own half evaded everyone to end up in the net, although it may have got a slight touch. Suddenly Louth were back in front.
Back came Leitrim with two O’Hagan frees, one from the halfway line, and we were deadlocked again before Louth’s late scoring burst broke Leitrim hearts.
The amount of chances Louth let Leitrim create is a concern but given the setbacks they have already overcome they are sure to be primed and ready for their date with Longford for the Lory Meagher Final. Could a second title in three years be on the cards?
LEITRIM: Clement Cunniffe; Paul Lenehan, Stephen Goldrick; Martin Feeney, Conor Hackett, Dave McGovern, Kevin Clerkin; Karl McDermott (0-1), Sean Markham, Brendan Delaney (1-1), Gavin O’Hagan (0-9, 0-6 frees), Joe Murray (0-1), James McNabola (1-0); Diarmuid Kelleher (0-4), Cathal O’Donovan. Subs: Aaron McDermott for Clerkin (43); Senan Keane for Markham (49).
LOUTH: Ruairi Morrisey; Danny Morgan, Donal Ryan, Adam Plunkett; Andrew Smith, Conor Quigley, Jamie McDonnell (1-0); Seanie Crosbie, Liam Molloy (0-1); Peter Fortune (0-1), Feidhlim Joyce (0-2), Niall Keenan; Darren Geoghegan (1-9, 0-7 frees), Paul Matthews (0-3), Sean Kerrisk (0-1). Subs: Seaghan Conneelly for Keenan (45); Padraig Fallon for Joyce (59); Mark Gahan (0-1) for Kerrisk (63).
Referee: Caymond Flynn (Westmeath)
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