Lady Luck back with Louth
Wee County benefit from scrappy last gasp goal to leave Westmeath stunned
WHEN it comes to suffering Leinster championship heartbreak via the concession of scrambled injury-time goals, Louth have penned the Pulitzer. So when it comes to scoring one, they will take it every time. Which is precisely what happened yesterday.
Louth 2-9 Westmeath 0-14
To the best of our knowledge, Joe Sheridan was not in Pairc Tailteann to witness the hitherto unknown Daniel O'Connor toe-poke his way into countless headlines while simultaneously driving a dagger through Westmeath hearts.
If so, big Joe might have allowed himself a wry smile ... for yesterday it was Louth's turn to snatch victory from the jaws of looming defeat. Even a certain Martin Sludden might have innocently asked if Dick Turpin was in the building.
In fairness to Louth, there was nothing remotely illegal about O'Connor's match-winning goal, coming five minutes into the eight additional minutes prompted by a lengthy hold-up for the neck injury shipped by Westmeath's David Glennon.
But it was no early contender for Goal of the Season either. It was only fitting that Ronan Carroll's bulldozing charge along the Westmeath end-line created the opening and, when the ball skewed loose in the goalmouth, O'Connor was in the right place to pounce.
"The ball just broke and I threw a leg at it ... lucky enough it crawled in," admitted the St Patrick's clubman, who was only called into the panel a few weeks ago because of Louth's recent injury and emigration travails. "It was brilliant, yeah -- the stuff of dreams."
And the stuff of Westmeath nightmares. They have now lost five times to Louth in league or championship combat since 2010. All this despite being utterly dominant for most of the second half, transforming a 1-6 to 0-7 deficit into a two-point lead deep into stoppage time.
In truth, they could have been out of sight -- but Callum McCormack smashed against the crossbar when clean through in the 69th minute. At other times, well-placed forwards didn't trust themselves to go for their scores. All of which presented Louth with a lifeline.
Westmeath could still have snatched parity at the death but John Heslin, having won a free just inside the '45', saw his effort from the hands skew badly wide.
It was an incongruous end to a towering performance from Heslin, our marginal choice for Man of the Match ahead of Carroll. The ex-Aussie Rules man eclipsed former All Star Paddy Keenan in the aerial stakes -- no mean feat -- while doubling as Westmeath's most potent font of scores, kicking 0-5 (three from play).
That final fateful wide was Heslin's fourth in total, but perhaps the biggest mystery is why Paul Sharry didn't take it, having nailed a '45' from an identical position earlier.
While Westmeath mull over an uncertain qualifier future, Louth now face the ultimate challenge -- Dublin in Croke Park on Sunday week. Based purely on this patchy performance, they won't keep the ball kicked out to the All-Ireland champions but a typically bravura Peter Fitzpatrick accentuated the positives afterwards.
Repeating the mantra that it's never over until the referee blows his final whistle, the Louth boss insisted their victory was deserved rather than a freak of fortune. "We've now got a big task ahead of us," he added. "It's everybody's dream first of all to play in Croke Park, and to play against the All-Ireland champions. People think we're just going up to make the numbers. The hardest game in any Leinster championship is always the first game."
His skipper was more downbeat about the performance. "The second half was pretty bad from our point of view, and we just got out of jail there really," Keenan admitted.
"It's not too often that Louth come out of a tight game like that with a last-minute goal or point to win a game. We'll take it but you can't paper over the cracks; there were an awful lot of things we did wrong and an awful lot of things we've to work on, so we'll not get too carried away."
Ultimately, as the 2-9 to 0-14 scoreline confirms, goals proved Louth's salvation. Carroll struck their opener after 26 minutes, applying an unstoppable left-footed finish to Mark Brennan's penetrative approach work. In truth they could have been more than two up at the break: the Westmeath defence looked porous whenever Louth ran at them, but three more goal chances yielded just 0-1, Mark Brennan twice pulling wide and Derek Crilly forcing a tip-over save from Gary Connaughton.
At the other end, James Dolan was denied twice by a combination of 'keeper Neil Gallagher and one of his defenders. On the resumption, though, they wrested near-total control with three players particularly prominent -- Heslin, tigerish corner-back Kevin Maguire and Paul Sharry, who came storming into the game with his forays from centre-back.
The scoring return was still fitful, however. Denis Glennon had one of his infuriating (not to mention scoreless) afternoons while Westmeath were clearly irked that referee Martin Higgins didn't award a free for what appeared a blatant foul into the back of his brother David, prompting the aforementioned stoppage.
"From where I stood it was a definite free-in," said manager Pat Flanagan, although it's debatable whether such a free from near the right touchline would have yielded a point.
"I can't fault the boys," added Flanagan, disappointment etched across his face. "They played exceptionally well. Sometimes you don't get the rub of the green -- we hit the crossbar, they got a toe-poke of a goal, and the difference was we're gone out of the championship, which is very, very difficult to take."