Westmeath banished their spring blues with a high-scoring dismissal of Louth in today’s Leinster SFC opening round clash in Drogheda.
hree second half goals put the hosts to the sword, Callum McCormack, Shane Dempsey and Ray Connellan delivering the fatal incisions to a porous Louth defence.
Yet John Heslin’s tour de force, after an admittedly slow start, was probably the most telling factor. The target man tallied three points from play, converted all six of his frees and had a creative hand in two of those vital goals.
Both sides had endured demoralising league campaigns culminating in relegation for the second year running, Louth dropping down to Division Four and Westmeath to the third tier.
So, with confidence at a low ebb, a positive start was paramount for both sides - and even though Connellan kicked a booming opener inside 30 seconds for the visitors, it was Louth who settled into their stride more quickly.
Backed by a strong breeze, they landed the next three points via Derek Maguire, Colm Judge and a Ryan Burns free.
Initially at least, the Westmeath forwards were struggling in man-to-man combat and being caught behind their marker, including Heslin who lost his first three balls.
However, a 13th minute point from SFC rookie Dempsey was the catalyst for a transformation in Westmeath’s form and fortunes. This was the first of five unanswered points as Heslin (coming into his stride) finished off some neat interplay with a curling effort from the right wing; then Connellan landed his second from play and Heslin converted two frees to make it 0-6 to 0-3.
Louth recovered some momentum towards the end of the half and scored three of the last four points to see them trailing by 0-7 to 0-6 at the midpoint. Tommy Durnin landed his first from midfield and this was followed by two cracking efforts from distance - a Burns free and Declan Burns from play.
Yet, given the elements, Westmeath looked the more likely to push on upon the resumption, with half-back powerhouse Kieran Martin and roving forward McCormack particularly to the fore during that opening half.
And it was McCormack who delivered the game’s pivotal goal within 90 seconds of the restart. Paddy Holloway’s high delivery was brilliantly fielded by the Maryland man above Padraig Rath’s head, and he advanced through the middle before sending a howitzer to the roof of the net.
A point apiece was exchanged before Westmeath struck what should have been the killer second goal on 41 minutes, with McCormack, Heslin and John Egan combining slickly to afford a simple fisted tap-in for Dempsey.
That left seven between the sides, but just as quickly Westmeath lost their way as Louth hit six of the next eight points to leave just a goal in it.
The visitors appeared to be creaking, but then the soft centre of Louth’s defence was exposed once more, Dempsey’s lay-off putting Connellan through on goal. Instead of taking the direct route, though, he played a one-two with Heslin for another point-blank fisted goal on 56 minutes.
Heslin crowned his increasingly towering influence with a fine effort from play, and from there on they cruised to the finish, running out seven-point winners to set up a quarter-final date with Wexford.
SCORERS - Westmeath: J Heslin 0-9 (6f), R Connellan, S Dempsey 1-2 each, C McCormack 1-1. Louth: R Burns 0-6 (4f), T Durnin, D Byrne, C Grimes, E O’Connor 0-2 each, D Maguire, C Judge 0-1 each.
WESTMEATH: D Quinn; J Gilligan, K Maguire, K Daly; K Martin, P Holloway, J Dolan; D Daly, G Egan; J Stapleton, R Connellan, J Egan; C McCormack, J Heslin, S Dempsey. Subs: R Foley for Stapleton (57), L Smith for Daly (inj 59), F Boyle for Holloway (70).
LOUTH: N Gallagher; A Williams, P Reilly, P Rath; A Reid, D O’Hanlon, D Byrne; B Duffy, T Durnin; J Stewart, C Judge, D Maguire; R Burns, C Grimes, P Smith. Subs: E O’Connor for Smith (34), D Finnegan for Duffy (42), R Moore for Maguire (49), D Crilly for Stewart (61).
REF: B Cassidy (Derry).