TOUGHER roads lie ahead for Peter Fitzpatrick's Louth team, that is for sure.
A 17-point win over Athlone IT made it three wins out of three as the Wee County prepare for their National League opener in February.
After eight minutes, Dreadnots forward Pauric Smith grabbed the opening goal and after that, Louth stayed in first gear for the remainder, without coming across any real difficulty.
The gulf in class was evident as Louth went in with a 1-5 to 0-2 lead, one which could have been substantially greater if the men in white had of stepped it up a gear, again something they never needed to do.
Athlone battled bravely to the end, making it a sporting contest and kudos must be given to the students for that as they could have taken the easy route and turned it into an ill-tempered affair when a result was out of their reach for so long.
There were positives for Peter Fitzpatrick as he looks towards building a side capable of promotion from Division Three of the National League.
His defence, probably the one area that needs some repair work than others, is still a few games off from being decided, but on the day, Gerard Hoey and Padraig Rath, along with Ronan Greene staked their claim for full-back slots, whilst Aaron Hoey and Dessie Finnegan were largely untroubled at centre back and centre half-back.
Ronan Carroll has all but seized Brian White's vacant number eight jersey and a further four points from him on the day has basically cemented him in as Keenan's partner for the season, if he stays fit.
In attack, where Fitzpatrick has a variety of options available to him, Derek Crilly impressed as did the lively Pauric Smith, who was unfortunate not to have scored two goals. Shane Lennon, a central figure in Louth's attack last year, looks like he will not be ousted from his spot, as he popped over two frees in between two sublime points from play.
As a contest, the game was over as early as the 30 minute mark as Louth lead 1-4 to no score, until Frankie Burke opened their account, but by then the damage was done.
Pauric Smith, a real livewire throughout the game slotted home Louth's first score, a goal after only eight minutes who he clipped the ball into the net off the corner of the post. Lennon, who was constantly involved, found Ronan Carroll with a precise pass. Carroll offloaded to Smith, who was 12 yards out and fired home to the keeper's far post.
Louth had the ball in the net less than 30 second later, but Derek Maguire's final pass to Derek Crilly was considered square ball as Crilly dispatched it into the net.
The decision did not deter Louth as Smith showed his eye for goal with a long range point soon after, followed by a bursting run by Ronan Carroll, which he ended with a score. Lennon added a free before Carroll and Crilly took advantage of the space in the middle by adding two more points, leaving the score 1-5 to 0-2 at half time.
Adrian Reid and Jimmy Murray were introduced at half time as Derek Maguire and Brian Donnelly made way. Maguire will have better days in a Louth shirt and his future should and probably will not be decided on this display. After a long season at club and county level, the Young Irelands player may need another few games to get back into full-fitness before he hits the heights he reached last year.
Reid, a skillful workhorse, wasted no time in his comeback in a Louth jersey as put the ball into the net on 42 minutes, just after he played in Derek Crilly for a effortless point.
Paddy Keenan showed why he is revered around the country with a breathless pass from his own 40m line that was scooped up by Carroll.
He found Reid wanting out on the right and the Mattock Rangers man skipped past ‘keeper Gary Connaughton before blasting into the net.
It was game over and from there, Louth turned the screw as Lennon hit three points in a row, two from open play to nail down his position for the league opener against Westmeath on February 6.
Ray Finnegan, a colossus at half back got in on the act with a well-taken score on 58 minutes, followed by another point from Carroll, whose health is vital to the Louth team this year.
Smith had the ball in the net again on the hour mark, but again Louth were denied a goal with the umpires claiming ‘square ball' once again.
Carroll smacked the post with a wicked effort and it fall handsomely into the path of Smith, who tapped it first time into the net. The decision for the goal not to stand displeased Fitzpatrick, but the manner of the decision, I.e. referee Gary McCormack having a word with both umpires, before making his final decision, was something he was delighted with, considering the events of July 11 last year.
Keenan, Smith, Carroll and Murray added further scores before Athlone's Colin Garvey wrapped things up with Athlone's fourth point of the day. A tougher road indeed does lie ahead, starting with Wicklow next Sunday in the O'Byrne Cup.
One thing Fitzpatrick and his players will be hoping is that a bigger crowd is on hand to cheer them on than the diminutive 250 number that visited the Gaelic Grounds on Sunday.
Scorers - LOUTH: Pauric Smith, (1-2), Ronan Carroll, (0-4), Shane Lennon, (0-4, 2f), Adrian Reid, (1-0), Derek Crilly, (0-2), Ray Finnegan, Paddy Keenan, Jimmy Murray, all (0-1). ATHLONE: Ian Coffey, (0-1f), Frankie Burke, Michael Lundy, Colin Garvey, all (0-1).
LOUTH: Neil Gallagher; Padraig Rath; Aaron Hoey, Gerard Hoey; Ray Finnegan, Dessie Finnegan, Stephen Fitzpatrick; Paddy Keenan, Ronan Carroll; Derek Crilly, Andy McDonnell, Brian Donnelly; Pauric Smith, Shane Lennon, Derek Maguire.
Subs: Ronan Greene for Padraig Rath, (33mins), Adrian Reid for Derek Maguire, H/T, Jimmy Murray for Brian Donnelly, H/T, Sean Connor for Neil Gallagher, 46mins, Declan Byrne for Dessie Finnegan, 61mins.
ATHLONE: Gary Connaughton; Cathal Duignan, Ciaran Duncan, Colm Garvey; Mark Callan, Matthew Mitchell, Aiden Rowan; Ger Dennigan, Paul Bannon; Michael Lundy, David Egan, Eugene Clarke; Cathal Shine, Frankie Burke, Ian Coffey.
Subs: Ciaran Curley for Eugene Clarke, (25mins), Cathal Blake for Aiden Rowan, (60mins), Fintan O'Reilly for Michael Lundy, (60mins). Wides: Louth - 7 (4 first half), Athlone - 7 (5 first half). REFEREE:: Gary McCormack (Offaly).
THERE were many things which Peter Fitzpatrick was delighted with on Sunday, none more so than the sight of a refereeing consulting his umpires for not one, but two disputed goals.
This time, it was two Louth goals that were being disputed as a first half strike by Derek Crilly and a second half tap-in from Pauric Smith required a consultation between umpires and the referee Gary McCormack.
On both occasions, the referee disallowed both efforts, but the manner in which McCormack did job pleased Fitzpatrick, especially after the events of the Leinster Final last year.
"I was delighted to see the referee, on both occasions, going in to consult his umpires even though the two decisions went against us.
"It's just a pity the referee in the Leinster Final could not have done the same as him."
On the day, Fitzpatrick had several positives to take away from the game as his midfield of Paddy Keenan and Ronan Carroll dominated yet again.
"I'm actually delighted with the game today. I thought Athlone IT were very good for the first 15 minutes. They looked very fit and sharp.
"I thought our defence played absolutely fantastic. Paddy Keenan and Ronan Carroll were a fantastic combination.
"I thought the whole forward line worked very hard. There's no medals won today. Athlone tired away after the first 20 minutes and we dominated the rest of the game.
"I was very impressed with our workrate."
Fitzpatrick added that his team are out to kill teams off this year, after seeing the Leinster Final slip through their hands in the dying moments in 201.
"If you go back to the Leinster Final last year, we lost the game in the last few minutes so it's very important, whether the game is at 70 minutes or 75 minutes, you just have to keep going and going and going.
"There's always the chance that maybe Athlone IT could have got one or two sneaky goals but the way the team played, especially the midfield with Paddy and Ronan there, there was no way Athlone was going to come back.
"We just kept pushing forward. We used our five subs today. It's a pity that you could not use more subs today but that's the name of the game."
Now Louth must face Wicklow, a side they met last year in the O'Byrne Cup and a game which they won comfortably, 2-18 to 0-11, but Fitzer is expecting a backlash from the Garden County.
"They are the kind of games that you want. We played Wicklow last year down in Baltinglass and we gave them a good hammering, by more than 10 points and after the game, Mick O'Dwyer winked at me so I know he will try to get me back for that game.
"We don't mind. We want competitive games. We are delighted to be still in the O'Byrne Cup and delighted to get a game against Wicklow next Sunday.
"The most important game for us is the Westmeath game on February 6. At the moment, there's about four or five places up for grabs. Today young Gerard Hoey did very well, as did Ronan Greene when he came on, Brian Donnelly and Jimmy Murray.
"There's a lot of lads fighting for places. Aaron Hoey is doing a superb job for me in centre back and Dessie too at centre half back so they are all fighting hard.
"There's still a few lads to come back from injuries, but the good thing is they are all fighting for places."
One thing Fitzpatrick will concentrate in the next few weeks is free-kick taking now that Brian White has left the country.
"It's still January. There's no trouble at the moment. They are things that you work at over the next couple of weeks.
"As I said, all I wanted is work commitment and I got 150%."