Sluggish Reds scrape past a gritty Antrim resistance
A TASTY 70-minute display in Portlaoise apart, Louth fans have been dining on a familiar staple of sweet and sour in 2013, and Saturday's All-Ireland Qualifier date with Antrim was no different as Aidan O'Rourke's troops made hard work of crushing a dogged Saffron resistence.
Determined to bounce back from a frustrating Leinster Championship defeat to Wexford, the Reds forged commanding leads of six and seven points in each half respectively, but still appeared vulnerable when the visitors staged a spirited revival midway through the second half.
Even in the first period Antrim were posing a shaky home rearguard all manner of problems, and a more potent and confident attacking force would surely have inflicted a great deal more damage than the six first-half scores the visitors mustered.
Louth's main attacking outlet in the first period was the young and gifted Ciaran Byrne, who gave Kevin O'Boyle a torrid time of it, kicking two top-class points and netting a crucial 15th minute goal. Strangely, however, the St Mochta's man was replaced by Darren Clarke as the first sparks of an Antrim revival started to fly in the second period.
Byrne's first-half display apart, the other big positive from O'Rourke's point of view was his team's reaction to that second-half hiccup, as Ronan Carroll, Paddy Keenan, Ray Finnegan and Shane Lennon underlined the value of experience and class in the final quarter.
On his 100th appearance, Carroll's impressive cameo yielded two fine scores, leaving him agonisingly short of 100 career points. In Andy McDonnell's absence, Carrol and Finnegan's direct running with and without possession was crucial, and the former's 40-minute contribution must have nudged him into a starting berth for the trip to Newbridge on Saturday week. Finnegan must also be close to a full return, even with John O'Brien due to return from suspension.
Alongside Carroll, Keenan was back to his brilliant best, particualry when the going got tough in the second period, while Lennon summoned a similar response, despite enduring a frustrating first period being double marked by Paul Doherty and Mark Sweeney.
Antrim had their homework done in that regard, bottling the Kilkerley man up behind a sweeper system and sending regular full back Ricky Johnson out to mark Brian White. It largely worked in the opening half, but they failed to account for Byrne or, bizarrely, Keenan, who they left in a one-on-one match-up with Sean McVeigh - a tussle the Louth captain won hands down.
However, the big concern for O'Rourke will be his team's failure to kick on in either half. The opening stages were a carbon copy of the Wexford clash at the same venue three weeks previously as Louth faded after a dream start. They set down a marker with four early points from Colm Judge (who delivered a composed and selfless display througout), Ciaran Byrne, Conor Rafferty and Brian White and when Byrne plucked a Derek Mguire up-and-under from the sky to finish neatly under Crhis Kerr, Antrim looked in big trouble.
However, similar to the Wexford game, Louth idled in front, although luckily on this occasion Antrim didn't possess the same guile or potency in attack as the Yellow Bellies.
Both sides passed up good goal chances before half-time as Neill Gallagher saved smartly from Sean Kelly and Adrian Reid dragged a low shot wide after a trademark run through the heart of the Antrim defence.
A four-point cushion at half-time, 1-7 to 0-6, was nothing to call home about for Louth after playing with a stiff breeze, and if anything Antrim should have been closer at the interval.
But within 10 minutes of the restart Louth looked to be in cruise control as they hit the ground running once more. Again, four points put Antrim firmly on the back foot as Lennon, White (from a free), Carroll and Ray Finnegan made it 1-11 to 0-7.
That should have provided the launchpad for a comfortable final 20 minutes for the home fans, but they were knawing at the fingernails again five minutes later as Antrim hit back with 1-2 without reply.
The response eventually came via Carroll and Lennon and although goalscorer Michael Pollock added a point to his tally further scorers from Lennon, Rafferty and Lennon again, put the issue to bed with 10 minutes left on the clock.
But the drama was by no means over as with two minutes remaining Neil Gallagher took exception to an umpire's decision over a Kevin O'Boyle point. The 'keeper must have had a case as the other umpire waved the effort wide, but Gallagher's protests were too strong for Ciaran Branagan who produced a straight red card for the Cooley Kickhams man. John O'Brien will return for the trip to Kildare, but Gallagher will miss out, paving the way for a full Cham[pionship debut for Joe Flanagan.
It was a frustrating end to a stop-start day for Louth, although afterwards the manager and his players insisted the result was all that counts.
They were right, but when an away assignment against Kildare in round two popped out of the draw drum on Monday morning, the performance will have been shoved firmly back under the spotlight.
While a six-point win sounds convincing, a team like Kildare would surely have been less forgiving of Louth's tendency to switch off for extended periods of the contest.
That said, Kildare should hold no real fears for Aidan O'Rourke's side as they beat the Lilywhites en-route to the Leinster final in 2010, and also stormed St Conleth's Park on the way to the last-12 of the Qualifiers in 2007.
Ironically, and perhaps more importantly, Saturday's victory was Louth's first Qualifier success since that summer odyssey under Eamonn McEneaney, which was eventually narrowly ended by Cork in Portlaoise.
Kildare's humiliating defeat to Dublin won't have passed unnoticed in the Louth camp either, and even with a fortnight to recover, Kieran McGeeny's motivitational powers will be tested to the hilt.
A trip to Ennis, Dungarven or Carrick-on-Shannon might have ensured a more straightforward assignment, but O'Rourke and his players will learn a lot more about themselves in the St Conleth's Park cauldron in what has the makings of one of the ties of the round.
A return to the more familiar role of underdog role will suit the Reds nicely too.