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Louth leave Laois to lick wounds

IT may seem gratuitously unfair on Louth, given the effervescence of their performance in Portlaoise yesterday, but any assessment of their 10-point saunter into the Leinster SFC quarter-finals must start and end with Laois.

When a crestfallen Justin McNulty eventually emerged from the home team's dressing-room, he faced a firing squad of reporters wondering where it had all gone so calamitously wrong. A case of death by dictaphone.

And – in keeping with a day when labouring, lifeless Laois had no answers to the first-half incisions of target man Shane Lennon; the effortless, almost cerebral deadball striking of Brian White; or the overall tenacity and spark of a visiting team primed for battle – the Armagh man was at a loss to know what had happened.

"Shocked, shocked, absolutely shocked," the vanquished manager admitted, as if repetition might ease the pain of this 1-16 to 1-6 mauling.

"We came here today expecting to deliver a big performance and we certainly didn't give that from the first minute to the final minute. We didn't seem to have any fight throughout. Louth were tactically better, hungrier than us and fully deserved victory."

In advance of this first round fixture, Laois were touted as 8/15 favourites, predominantly on the strength of their 'back door' run to last year's All-Ireland quarter-finals, where they pushed Dublin most of the way.

Instead, what we witnessed yesterday was more redolent of previous championship implosions by the maddeningly mercurial O'Moore men – on a par with recent annihilations by Kildare in 2009 and 2011, and probably even worse than last year's second-half fadeout in Longford.

DEVASTATED

"League form was decent – my mind is boggled," said a mystified McNulty. "Those guys are devastated by what happened today. The players put so much into it, the management team; everybody has put so much into it. I can't explain it. We really believed we were pushing on from last year. It is just one of those games."

And also "one of those games" of which Louth are always capable, albeit on a far too sporadic basis since their standout 'Leinster moral victory' campaign of 2010. The key for their impressive new manager – McNulty's former Armagh team-mate, Aidan O'Rourke – is unlocking the door to summer consistency, starting with their quarter-final clash against Wexford in Drogheda on June 9.

"They're a very talented group of players, but sometimes they don't realise how talented they are," O'Rourke suggested. "There maybe is a poor relation mentality with the group at times, whenever they're up against bigger opposition. I think Laois would be considered one of the top two or three teams in Leinster and that performance should help them in that regard."

However, as if guarding against the perception that Louth are now best placed to emerge from the so-called weaker half of the draw, their manager reminded everyone how Wexford have already "wiped the floor with us" in Drogheda during the league (the final margin was four points). "On any given day, if we have our heads right and are working hard and perform, I think we're a match for most teams," he said.

"The one thing I can tell you about the Louth mentality is that if we think for a second we have a half-easy game or there's any opportunity to take the foot off the gas, we'll be taken apart."

The only team taken apart here were Laois, who started against a strong wind and a Louth team playing with gale-force intent. The latter had four points – and White three – inside seven minutes. Already, the sprightliness of their movement and alertness of their kickout strategy were in stark contrast to an all-pervading dullness about Laois.

When Derek Maguire capitalised on a Padraig McMahon slip to tee up Lennon for a fisted goal on 21 minutes, Louth led by 1-7 to 0-2 and the goalscorer already had 1-2 from play.

By half-time, the gap was out to nine – 1-9 to 0-3. Not even a brace of third-quarter points from Donie Kingston (the only Laois forward to score from play), or a thunderbolt goal from wing-back McMahon on the hour, threatened to arrest the slide.

It was only fitting that the elegant White, with his eighth point, third from play, should complete the scoring.

By then, Laois 'resistance' had long since turned to frustration – and a necklace of rash fouls. Darren Strong was arguably lucky to escape with a booking for his high tackle on Maguire, but skipper John O'Loughlin eventually walked deep in stoppage time for a double-yellow dismissal which encapsulated their day in all its grimness.


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