Burns comes of age with late goal to see off Westmeath
Louth 1-14 Westmeath 1-9
IN the end, Louth sent a schoolboy to do a man's job. Ryan Burns has only just become old enough to vote but he looks born to settle championship matches.
Burns was added to the championship panel in recent weeks with much fanfare. At just 18, he had starred for his club, school, county minor and U-21 sides, but lobbing the youngster into championship action seemed too much, especially with his Leaving Cert just weeks away.
Aidan O'Rourke gambled on his talent and with just over 10 minutes to go, he introduced the Hunterstown Rovers clubman.
Two minutes later, and with his first touch in senior football, the ball was in the net and Louth were two points up. From that point there was only going to be one winner and Burns had justified the hype that has built around him in the last 12 months.
Afterwards, O'Rourke revealed the quandary Louth's selectors went through before opting for the switch.
"Even taking him on, we had to second-guess ourselves before we made the change," said the Armagh man.
"There's always a worry because he's so young. But he has such natural ability. It wasn't just the goal that he scored, it was his movement and ability to win the ball and drag defenders out of position.
"There's no worries about him at all, he's a very capable young fella and well able to handle it. He's very level-headed and very confident. I hope he doesn't think it's going to work like that every day. But maybe it will."
A turgid first half saw Louth take a 0-8 to 0-5 lead in at the break, but they should have been much further ahead. When they went in at the break, O'Rourke's men had totalled 11 wides with the aid of a stiff breeze.
It took 10 minutes for the first score to come – John Heslin converted a free for Westmeath while Louth needed a full 15 minutes to get on the scoreboard.
But with their set-up, Louth were likely to go better against the breeze. Their defensive system frustrated Westmeath while in attack they alternated between working through the hands or going long to Shane Lennon and the uncompromising but effective Conor Grimes.
Andy McDonnell, Declan Byrne and Derek Maguire worked well off that pair. Only for Burns' match-winning intervention, Maguire might have grabbed the headlines, landing five points from a variety of angles and distances.
Westmeath had their chance too. When Kieran Martin goaled and James Dolan added a point the home side were two points clear with less than 20 minutes remaining. But despite their experience in Division 1 this year, they couldn't see out the game from that point.
Paddy Keenan seemed to take Westmeath's goal personally. Already operating with real authority in the middle third, he had the ball in the net immediately after Martin's goal, only for Maurice Deegan to pull back play for an earlier infraction.
The St Patrick's man landed Louth's next two points before Burns' intervention and Westmeath, who have now lost 11 competitive games on the bounce, couldn't muster a reply with Louth closing out the game with little hassle.
"It is a terrible statistic to have," Westmeath boss Paul Bealin said. "I knew Division 1 of the league would have been difficult but I felt we would have potentially been able to win that game out there but it didn't happen today and look, sometimes the lads need to balance themselves in terms of leadership and we didn't show leadership today.
"Hunger is something that is hugely important and our lads didn't have it. And yes, all over the pitch they had leaders and our leaders didn't stand up, particularly when they got their goal.
"When we got our goal we had two wides immediately after that which didn't help. We could have gone four or five up at that stage but it wasn't to be and I think Louth themselves were deserving of victory."
Louth have set up a Leinster quarter-final clash with Kildare in Croke Park on June 8. It's another game they'll go into as underdogs but, as they demonstrated last year when toppling Laois, that will scarcely matter.
They'll likely warm up in their club jerseys as they did in Mullingar – "a nice reminder for them of what they were representing before the game started," O'Rourke explained.
As for Burns himself, there are other things on his mind. The morning after the Kildare game, he'll face Maths Paper 2.
"You just have to keep your head down and play football," said the teenager. "I wouldn't have been any good if I was thinking about the Leaving Cert out there, I had to play football and luckily it went well."
SCORERS – Louth: D Maguire 0-5, D Byrne (2fs), P Keenan 0-3 each, R Burns 1-0, A McDonnell 0-2, S Lennon 0-1. Westmeath: K Martin 1-1, J Heslin 0-3 (2fs), G Egan 0-2, D Glennon, Dessie Dolan, J Dolan 0-1 each.
Louth – N Gallagher 8; P Rath 7, D Finnegan 8, G O'Hare 7; J O'Brien 7, D Crilly 7, A Reid 7; P Keenan 8, M Fanning 7; C Grimes 8, B White 7, A McDonnell 8; D Byrne 8, S Lennon 7, D Maguire 8 Subs: R Burns 8 for Lennon (57), B Donnelly 7 for Fanning (57), J Stewart for White (BC, 61), P Reilly for Reid (67),
Westmeath – D Quinn 7; Damien Dolan 7, K Gavin 7, K Maguire 8; R Foley 6, P Sharry 6, J Dolan 7; D Duffy 6, J Heslin 6; C McCormack 7, G Egan 7, K Martin 8; D Glennon 6, R Connellan 6, Dessie Dolan 6 Subs: D McCormack 6 for Connellan (29), D Harte 6 for Damien Dolan (60), A Giles for McCormack (64), J Gonoud for Foley (68).
Ref – M Deegan (Laois)
Game at a glance
Paddy Keenan (Louth)
Completely dominant in midfield and landed two crucial second- half points immediately after Westmeath's goal to put his team on their way to victory.
Ryan Burns' 58th-minute goal swung the momentum back in Louth's favour and handed them a two-point lead they never looked like relinquishing.
Louth are a 'championship team'. Without a win in the league in 2014, they have turned over more fancied opposition for the second year in a row in the first round of the Leinster championship. Westmeath supporters have now witnessed 11 straight competitive defeats.
Hard to look past Burns' goal. It was the 17-year-old's first touch in senior football in a 'Roy of the Rovers'-style ending.
Maurice Deegan (Laois)
Another solid outing where he handed out the first black card of the football championship – one of the best referees around.
What they said:
Aidan O'Rourke (Louth manager):
"A reporter is after telling me we were odds against for the game. To be honest, I hadn't a clue about that. We expected to win the game. We came here to win and we probably felt we should have been more comfortable."
Paul Bealin (Westmeath manager):
"All over the pitch they had leaders and we didn't. Our leaders didn't stand up, particularly when they got their goal that lifted them at a crucial time in the game."
Louth 15 (5) Westmeath 15 (11)
Louth 12 (7)
Westmeath 19 (10)
Westmeath (Ger Egan 69)
Louth (Brian White 61)
Louth take on Kildare at Croke Park on June 8. Westmeath head for the qualifiers.