Carlow defeat leaves Louth at crossroads
GAA: Allianz NFL division 3 - Carlow 1-10 Louth 0-12
It's win or bust when Westmeath arrive in Drogheda on Saturday week as Louth' surprise promotion push hits a major crossroads.
While a win would put the Reds firmly back in the driving seat, a Westmeath victory would leave Wayne Kierans and his players out of road.
A frustrating defeat in Carlow on Saturday night was compounded by news of a Down win over Offaly and Westmeath's comfortable dispatching of doomed Sligo the following day.
That trio of results saw the Reds slip from top spot in the table to third, but with the top two to play in their final two games, Louth's destiny is still very much in their own hands.
However, Saturday's loss leaves them with absolutely no wriggle room.
A number of fresh injuries to add to an already crowded treatment table left Kierans and his deputies short-handed at Dr Cullen Park and it proved costly as Carlow clung on for the narrowest of victories.
Not for the first time this season, Louth finished with 13 men as Declan Byrne was dismissed on foot two yellow cards and Ciaran Downey was sin-binned in the closing stages.
Ultimately though, Sean Gannon's 11th minute goal, combined with Louth's first-half hesitancy, proved the difference in a dour tussle - although the way Carlow park the bus it's hard to imagine them being involved in anything other than dour tussles!
Teams defending in numbers is a fact of life these days, but Carlow take it to painstaking extremes, funnelling all 15 players back inside their own half at times, and playing a brand of sideways keep-ball that would leave you pining for the return of the doomed three handpass rule.
Waterford referee Alan Kissane didn't endear himself to the visitors either. Although he was generally bad for both sides, Louth seemed to get the shorter end of the stick, particularly in the first-half.
On several occasions he denied Louth fairly blatant close-range frees before awarding Carlow one at the other end. The naming of a Waterford referee raised a few eyebrows amongst supporters earlier in the week, but if that was an unfair stereotype, Kissane only managed to re-enforce it.
The Louth players didn't help matters by complaining about decisions and Carlow had a number of tough frees brought into much more manageable range.
But for all that, Louth just didn't make enough of an impact on the game in the opening half and only had themselves to blame for that.
They pressed Carlow's kick-outs well and didn't let the Barrowsiders build from the back, but from open play the Reds seemed to be caught in two minds between pushing up on Carlow's packed defence and dropping off themselves and forcing the hosts to be more adventurous.
In doing neither, they left their full backline badly exposed on a number of occasions in the opening half and Sean Gannon's goal was a perfect case in point.
There was almost zero resistance down Louth's left flank as Carlow worked the ball to Brendan Murphy and the ig midfielder showed a cool head to turn down his first two options in favour of an in-rushing Sean Gannon at the far post. The man-of-the-match made no mistake with a routine finish to the roof of the net.
That made it 1-2 to 0-2 after 12 minutes and the Louth goal led a somewhat charmed life thereafter,
They had a big let-off when a Fergal Sheekey fumble wasn't punished by the home side, but in Paul Broderick's absence, it was a failure to convert dead-ball chances that prevented Carlow from opening a significant lead.
Louth were possibly fortunate to adjourn just four points down, 1-5 to 0-4, but a comeback was always going to be a big ask against the breeze and with a Carlow defence packed tighter than can of sardines to negotiate.
Kierans will be heartened by the fact that they gave it a good lash and improved significantly on their first-half showing, but it was ultimately in vain.
Carlow's rearguard action proved as difficult to breach as expected and Louth were largely limited to long-range shooting.
Sam Mulroy's excellent dead-ball skills helped them to close the gap ever so gradually, but Carlow did just enough to keep their noses in front, despite rarely committing more than three or four men to attack in the second period.
Three points without reply after the break from Mulroy, with two frees, and Declan Byrne made it 1-6 to 0-7, and Louth even managed to reduce the gap to the minimum midway through the half with points from Geraldines duo James Craven and Jim McEneaney.
Perhaps it was the threat of relegation hanging over Carlow heads that prompted them to dig so deep in the closing stages, but their 13-man defence did its job well despite Louth adding two injury-time points through Mulroy and Ronan Holcroft.
Louth would have taken third spot with a genuine chance of promotion had you offered it to them at the start of the season, but this did feel like a missed opportunity.
With a better start and a better referee it could have worked out quite differently.
Carlow: Robert Sansom; Barry John Molloy, Shane Redmond, Conor Lawlor; Benny Kavanagh, Eoghan Ruth, Ciaran Moran; Brendan Murphy 0-1, Sean Murphy; Jordan Morrissey 0-1, Sean Gannon 1-1, Lee Walker 0-1; Conor Crowley, Darragh Foley 0-4f, Daniel St Ledger 0-1f. Subs: Chris Crowley for BJ Molloy (50), Darragh O'Brien 0-1 for Conor Crowley (55), Diarmuid Walshe for L Walker (60), John Murphy for C Moran (67).
Louth: Fergal Sheekey; Fergal Donohoe, Emmet Carolan, James Craven 0-1; Anthony Williams, Bevan Duffy, John Clutterbuck; Tommy Durnin, Andy McDonnell 0-1; Conor Branigan, Ciaran Downey, Eoghan Duffy; Jim McEneaney 0-1, Sam Mulroy 0-6f), Declan Byrne 0-2. Subs: Eoghan Callaghan for J Clutterbuck (43), Ronan Holcroft 0-1f for J McEneaney (55), Dan Corcoran for F Donohoe (66), Cian Callan for E Duffy (66), Ross Nally for C Branigan (70).
Referee: Alan Kissane (Waterford)