AFTER finding himself in the bizarre position of having to defend his team for being too ruthless in Kilkenny, Colin Kelly must have felt more than a little vindicated in Haggardstown last Wednesday night.
Even after a 51-point victory, the irony attached to the suggestion that a Louth team should or could afford the luxury of letting up in any game, of any description, was not lost on the canny Reds boss.
Back-to-back championship wins are a rare treat in the Wee County at any level and Kelly was acutely aware that the 'professionalism' and 'focus' his side showed in Ballyragget would need to be repeated tenfold against a fancied Longford side - little did he realise just how much.
Reduced to 14 men on the stroke of half-time, Louth took a meagre one-point lead into the break. Even at that, William Woods' 22nd-minute goal came somewhat against the first-half run of play. Longford looked dangerous in attack, dominant and athletic at midfield and resolute in defence throughout that first period. With a numerical advantage to come in the second period, it was hard not to fear for Louth's safety.
This was a Longford team with an impressive pedigree, but for Kelly that was the perfect motivation for his troops.
'There was a lot of people alluding to the fact that this Longford team won a Lenister Minor title in 2010 and were runners-up [at U-21] last year, but we kept pushing home to them that history can't affect this result. We said to them at twenty past seven, let's create our own bit of history and in fairness they did. As I said in Kilkenny, they have approached it with great professionalism and again tonight they were second to none.'
With their backs to the wall after O'connor's red card, Louth found inspiration in adversity to produce one of the most memorable second-half displays from any Louth team in recent times.
It was grit and class rolled into one, epitomised by the new midfield pairing of Cathal Bellew and Shane O'hanlon. The former covered every blade of grass on the wide expanse of Mcgeough Park, while the latter produced a goal that would have had the lads on the Sunday Game purring.
Kelly played his part from the line, throwing in Barry Hamilton at half-time to give his side a new dimension up front. In fact, four of Kelly's five changes made a positive impact on the game, with the fifth, Stephen Reidy, only tasting a few seconds of action deep in injury time.
The plan for the second half was to attack Longford early and get points on the board, so after out-scoring their visitors by 2-4 to 0-1 in the first 20 minutes even John 'Hannibal' would have been mighty proud of the way the plan came together.
For his part, Kelly did his best to play down the extra-man factor with his players at half-time. 'We knew that Longford would probably leave their spare man back as a sweeper, so in effect they were cancelling him out for us and we were still manned up one-for-one from our own 50yard line back. If we could pass the ball by him rather than kick it to him, we had a chance.'
The players certainly took the message on board, but even Kelly must have been somewhat taken aback by his side's superb start to the second half.
Longford barely got a hand to the ball as Louth rattled off three points in five minutes after the restart from Ruairi Moore, Barry Hamilton and Ben Rogan to establish a double scores lead, 1-5 to 0-4, but in truth the men in red were only warming up.
William Woods added another, before Bellew picked out his midfield partner, Shane O'hanlon, with a brilliant pass. The Geraldines man had options inside or a simple tap-over for a point, but he caught everyone by surprise with a breath-taking finish to the far top corner from the right edge of the penalty area.
The ferocity of Louth's start to the second period was underlined by the fact that it took Longford almost 19 minutes to open their account, but straight afterwards William Woods gave everyone a glimpse of his silky soccer skills, rifling home a Ben Rogan centre from close range to open a 10-point lead, 3-6 to 05.
Longford finally threw caution to the wind, sending their spare man forward for the final 10 minutes, and slowly but surely they edged their way back into the game, pinning Louth back inside their own '45' and picking off five points without reply.
Referee Ronnie Malone - who dished out 10 yellow cards to Louth men and only a handful to the visitors - seemed to be doing his best to make for an exciting conclusion, gifting Longford some very soft frees and adding a whopping six minutes of injury time, but in the end Robbie Smyth's scrappy tap-in in the fourth of those added minutes came too late to rescue the midlanders.
Louth clung on, defending manfully in the dying minutes and even though nerves were frayed to breaking point Kelly felt even that was a worthwhile experience for his players.
'The lads wouldn't have been in too many tight positions where they had to go on and win Lenister Championship matches and to be fair Longford were favourites here tonight.
'But we're not about moral victories. If we don't win a Lenister medal we'll have failed ultimately, so that's the goal for the team.'