Fitzpatrick revels in Wee bit of optimism
NEW Louth boss Peter Fitzpatrick maintained his early season 100pc record with an opening league victory in Drogheda yesterday that was much more comprehensive than the scoreline indicated.
Louth's predilection for good starts most seasons has spawned a running joke about them having a great chance in the Leinster championship, if only it was played in January.
But their strong finish yesterday, after seeing a four-point lead suddenly slashed to the minimum by a late Wexford goal, proved there's an encouraging bit of steel in them under Fitzpatrick and that their recent unbeaten run to a second consecutive O'Byrne Cup final was no seasonal flash in the pan.
Of course, it is far too early to be getting carried away but there were enough signs of green shoots there to give Wee County fans real cause for optimism.
They kicked nine wides in the first half but not one after the break. And in the dying minutes, when Paddy Byrne nicked a late goal for Wexford in a goal-mouth scramble, they didn't panic and held their heads impressively.
Evergreen midfield hero Paddy Keenan immediately, and cleverly, won a crucial sideline ball deep in defence and after Andy McDonnell's shot fell short, up popped Colin Judge to grab the insurance score with his fourth point of the second half.
"In the first half the ball was only going inches wide and we felt if we could keep the same penetration going, the shots could come off," a delighted Fitzpatrick said.
"We'd done well in the O'Byrne Cup but I told the lads that meant nothing unless we won here today and the first game in the league is always the hardest."
He had every reason to be a lot happier than Wexford manager Jason Ryan, whose team have a lot to prove this year after their Jekyll-and-Hyde last two seasons.
Though only a point adrift at half-time (0-5 to 0-6) they'd had the only goal chance of the first-half which Louth goalkeeper Neil Gallagher smothered brilliantly from Ben Brosnan after 20 minutes.
They had another one within 10 minutes of the restart when Paddy Byrne rounded his man and had a rocket off the crossbar. But after Adrian Flynn had scored the rebound, Brosnan missed a golden opportunity from a free that would have levelled the game for the first time.
Wexford actually then fell four points in arrears and their full-back line was very lapse in allowing Judge get so much space in the second-half.
When Wexford boss Ryan eventually introduced experienced heads like Ciaran Lyng, Eric Bradley and Colm Morris they battled back into it and Byrne's goal cut the deficit to just a point with four minutes remaining.
But Ryan said he wasn't tempted to introduce Lyng any earlier.
"The problem wasn't with our full-forward line, the problem was in the middle third where we gave away far too much possession, that was what was most upsetting," Ryan said.
Louth could actually have closed the game earlier. Judge found himself with an open chance after 55 minutes but chipped the ball over the bar, and 10 minutes later Shane Lennon should have laid off in front of goal but opted to shoot himself and was well blocked by Colm Morris.
But there was plenty to admire too.
They moved the ball quickly, counter-attacked swiftly, used the wings well and hustled and harried in hungry defensive packs.
In contrast Wexford, for a long time, lacked the same urgency and tended to take one touch too much out of a lot of their possession.
Young Louth debutants Andy McDonnell (0-2) and Declan Byrne never looked overawed, midfielder Ronan Carroll (a pre-match replacement for Sean O'Neill) scored 0-3 from play and the ever-dependable Aaron Hoey and Keenan were typically outstanding at centre-back and midfield. Goalkeeper Neil Gallagher, making his NFL debut, was also extremely assured, especially under the high ball.
And even though referee Ciaran Branagan, obviously sticking strongly to the recent directive on yellow cards (though not quite so eagle-eyed on some obvious pushes in the back), flashed three yellow cards at Louth players within five minutes of the second-half, they never backed off defensively.
Scorers -- Louth: C Judge 0-4, R Carroll, B White (3f) 0-3 each, A McDonnell 0-2, JP Rooney 0-1. Wexford: P Byrne 1-0, R Barry, A Flynn, B Brosnan (1f) 0-2 each, C Lyng (f), E Bradley 0-1 each.
LOUTH -- N Gallagher; D Byrne, D Finnegan, R Greene; R Finnegan, A Hoey, J O'Brien; P Keenan, R Carroll; D Crilly, A McDonnell, M Brennan; C Judge, JP Rooney, B White. Subs: D Maguire for Brennan (27), S Lennon for Crilly (41).
WEXFORD -- A Masterson; J Wadding, D Walsh, N Murphy; B Malone, D Murphy, A Doyle; D Waters, B Doyle; P Naughter, C Byrne, A Flynn; P Byrne, R Barry, B Brosnan. Subs: C Lyng for Naughter (47), E Bradley for Doyle (53), C Morris for Malone (54), S Roche for Flynn (65), C Kennedy for N Murphy (68).
Ref -- C Branagan (Down).