Honour in defeat as Reds miss big scalp
IT'S a rare thing for Louth supporters to leave a clash with Dublin feeling the boys in blue were there for the taking, but that was most certainly the case at the Gaelic Grounds on Saturday as Thomas McNamee's brave minors came up agonisingly short.
When you force the Leinster and All-Ireland champions to extra-time you deserve the plaudits that rightly flow your way, but it was still hard to shake the feeling that the Reds missed a glorious opportunity to take a huge scalp.
It all brought back painful memories of Dowdallshill in 2009 when Kieran Maguire's U-21s succumbed to the Dubs after extra-time, the only other occasion in recent memory when a Louth side has come anywhere near a championship win over the Sky Blues.
Con O'Callaghan eventually saved the visitor's blushes with a last-gasp point in normal-time, before popping up with two more in the 20 minutes added on, but if either team looked like they were going to win it in regulation play it was Louth.
Dublin will obviously point to 17 wides in mitigation and claim they simply had a bad day at the office, but on this occasion the stats do lie.
Against a gale force wind in the first period Louth were the better team, marrying a dogged tenacity with a composure that belied both their tender years and the challenge that lay ahead.
More often than not Dublin were harried and harrassed into bad decisions, particularly in front of goal, so their first-half tally of nine wides wasn't a true reflection on proceedings.
Louth, on the other hand, attacked with poise and purpose and chose their shots wisely, and by the 11th minute were full value for a 0-3 to 0-1 lead.
The scores did dry up for McNamee's men as the half wore on and the conditions inevitably took their toll, and they needed a superb fingertip save from Niall McArdle to keep the Dubs at bay. Still, no-one could begrudge them parity at the break, 0-3 apiece.
In hindsight it was a failure to kick on straight after the restart that proved the home side's undoing in the end, but Dublin's all-important goal in the 36th minute was as cruel as it was fortunate.
With two frees to his name already, Michael Deegan - son of the senior selector and former Dublin star Mick - launched a speculative effort at the target from way out on the right that somehow swirled wickedly into the far corner of Niall mcArdle's net, giving his side a vital four-point cushion.
While it was a cruel blow, it was by no means fatal and if anything Louth looked more comfortable chasing the game.
The outstanding Wayne Campbell quickly whittled the deficit back to two points with a brace of frees, but the Reds were probably wondering if it was going to be their day when lively substitute Josh Arrowsmith rattled the side-netting at one end, before Jack Hazely fisted over at the other.
But Louth still didn't panic of throw in the towel and five minutes later they were deservedly back on level terms.
Campbell and Arrowsmith were involved in the build-up with the latter picking out Darragh Lafftery who kept his cool superbly to side-step the advancing Lorcan Molloy and slot home to an empty net - 1-5 apiece and game on!
As in the first-half it was Louth who looked the more composed side in the closing stages and no-one moreso than sub Dean Maguire who plundered a superb point from way out on the left wing to edge his team in front.
Inevitably Dublin pressed in the closing stages, but their chance looked to have passed when the wayward Colm Basquel summed up his overall performance by spurning a 13m free from straight in front of the posts.
However, there was still time for supersub O'Callaghan to pop up with an equaliser and trigger extra-time.
Again Louth faced into the elements in the first 10-minute period and again the sides retired level as O'Callaghan and Maguire traded points, both fine efforts from two of the freshest pairs of legs on the pitch.
But as the first period wore on Louth started to wilt quite noticeably and despite turning around to take advantage of the breeze they were out on their feet after the restart.
O'Callaghan edged Dublin in front in the third minute and as Louth struggled even to get out of their own half, Basquel added the insurance score from a close-range free with 90 seconds left on the clock.
It was tough on Louth, who certainly invested enough into the tie to deserve extra-time, and maybe even to pull off a major shock, but unlike Maguire's U-21s four years they do get a second bit of the cherry.
On the evidence of this outing they can step through the backdoor with plenty of confidence. Having already run Kildare close and drawn with Laois, the young Reds have shown they can mix it with the supposed favourites for provincial glory.
A bye to the second round of the qualifier section is also a bonus, where they will meet the winners of Carlow and Wexford's first round tie away from home on May 1st. The former were well beaten by Wicklow on Saturday, while the latter were edged out by Wicklow.