Louth won't get carried away - Kelly
Louth 3-12 Antrim 1-14
It may only be "small steps" but Colin Kelly hailed his young Louth side as second-half goals from Jim McEneaney and Conor Grimes secured a rare Croke Park success on Saturday.
Antrim were the better side for long periods, and buoyed by a major from Matthew Fitzpatrick, they held a 1-9 to 1-5 advantage at the break before extending the lead to five upon the resumption, with Tomás McCann on song.
They wouldn't score again for 22 minutes, however, and this barren spell and McEneaney's 59th-minute goal forced a momentum shift before Grimes hit the late match-winner.
Successive relegations hit confidence in the Wee county but Kelly has overseen a radical rebuilding process and was delighted that the application of his rookie side paid dividends.
"What's most pleasing about this is those lads have worked their arses off since pre-Christmas," Kelly said. "And we're trying to set standards that if you work hard you get the rewards. But it's small steps.
"We'll see if we can introduce another few young fellas into the squad and try to keep it pressurised with guys coming into the squad the whole time.
"If we're beaten it's not for the want of work-rate on anyone's behalf so I'm delighted for the lads to get the win."
A brilliant goal from wing-back Derek Maguire, who finished with 1-2, helped Louth forge an early advantage but Antrim took complete control from the 15th minute on, with McCann on target from placed balls and Fitzpatrick hitting a fine goal.
Built on a effective counter-attacking style, they held a four-point half-time advantage and the one-way traffic looked like continuing early into the second half as they stretched their lead to five, 1-11 to 1-6.
Louth gained a foothold, however, with James Califf and Ryan Burns effective as they went route one and McEneaney's goal, after returning from a blood injury, breached an Antrim defence which had conceded just two goals in their six group games.
"I doubt you'll see a better goal in Croke Park all year long," Kelly beamed. "He probably had no right to even go for goal but we spoke about things like that. If the chance comes we have the quality."
That pushed Louth ahead, 2-9 to 1-11, but Patrick McBride eventually broke Antrim's scoring duck on the hour mark and Conor Murray followed up to level affairs. Burns and McCann traded frees but the Saffrons would not score again.
Grimes' bustling 71st-minute goal, as well as an insurance score from the excellent Maguire, sealed the deal and Kelly was quick to praise 21-year-old Grimes.
"He plays the game like a slight corner-forward, he's making the runs of a real dainty inside forward and he has the shooting skills of an inside forward and yet he's very robust, big and strong," he said. "He really could be anything."
Antrim boss Frank Fitzsimons rued some missed opportunities early in the second half but will quickly shift concentration to Championship in three weeks.
"I think we had six wides in a row and one or two dropped short into the keeper's hands but that's the difference. If you want to go to the next level you should keep the scoreboard ticking over," he said.
"We're back training tonight for Championship and that's us brought back down to earth."
A jubilant dressing-room showed just what the triumph means for Louth but Kelly is keeping them grounded as he has no interest in letting history repeat itself come championship.
"The last time we won a divisional final in Croke Park Carlow beat us so we won't be getting carried away with ourselves," he concluded.
SCORERS - Louth: D Maguire 1-2, R Burns 0-4 (3fs), J McEneaney 1-1 (0-1 s/l) , D Byrne 0-3, C Grimes 1-0, J Califf 0-2fs. Antrim: T McCann 0-8 (6fs), M Fitzpatrick 1-1, C Murray 0-2, B Neeson, P McBride, R Johnson 0-1 each.
LOUTH: C Lynch 7; P Rath 7, P Reilly 7, K Toner 5; D Maguire 8, D McMahon 6, E Lafferty 7; J Stewart 7, J Califf 6; D Byrne 8, J McEneaney 8, T Durnin 6; C McKeever 6, C Grimes 7, R Burns 8. Subs: J Bingham 6 for Toner (13), A Williams 7 for Bingham (BC 35 +1), R Moore for McMahon (43), G McSorley 6 for McEneaney (BS 51), J McEneaney for McSorley (57), G McSorley forBurns (70+5).
ANTRIM: C Kerr 6; N Delargy 7, C Burke 6, R Johnson 7; K O'Boyle 6, M Johnson 7, J Laverty 6; M McCann 7; J Carron 6; N McKeever 7, K Niblock 6, C Murray 6; B Neeson 7, M Fitzpatrick 6, T McCann 8. Subs: R Murray 6 for Neeson (48), P McBride 7 for Carron (53), D McAleese 6 for Fitzpatrick (58), M Sweeney 6 for Laverty (63), J Crozier for Burke (67).
REF - J Henry (Mayo)