Louth keep cool to book Royal rumble
Louth 1-19 Wicklow 1-14
The panic button has often been hit when Louth were in tricky situations, but the current crop are cut from a different cloth and they showed composure beyond their years to kick on in the closing stages against a gallant Wicklow side.
Johnny Magee's Garden side wouldn't take no for an answer throughout a lively contest in Parnell Park, but the Wee County handled the championship pressure cooker with aplomb to book a date with Meath.
When goalkeeper Robert Lambert landed a huge free to leave just one in it late on, Wicklow's dander was up, but seconds later Eoin O'Connor executed a textbook block on John McGrath that changed the game. Colin Kelly's men hit four in a row to negotiate a sticky situation, with the Louth boss satisfied to see their preparation pay off.
"In the presentation beforehand, we said the block is a skill that you learn when you're seven or eight. Tackling is a skill, it's something that you can perfect. We said 'listen lads, a block won an All-Ireland for Tyrone so that's the importance of it and you have to be willing to go on a fella's boot today if that's what it takes'. Luckily enough that came through'," he said.
Kelly hailed O'Connor's virtuoso display, describing him as "an outstanding talent", but when the game was there to be won Louth were able to call on the likes of Jim McEneaney, Declan Byrne and Gerard McSorley off the bench and that made the difference.
"This is their squad, this is not something they've walked into, they've built this up, they've got the success, they've got the couple of promotions. We only put the wheels in motion," Kelly said.
For Magee, defeat was difficult to swallow.
"We put ourselves in a position to win it. The frustrating thing at this level is that when the opportunity arises, you need to take it. Gutted now to be honest. We had opportunities to win it so it's heartbreaking. We just need to get over that line," he said.
O'Connor's 11th-minute goal put Louth four points in front, but with Seanie Furlong and Paul Cunningham dangerous in attack, Wicklow hit back. Mark Kenny's expert finish put them ahead at the end of the first quarter, 1-3 to 1-2.
It was tit for tat for the remainder of the half, with O'Connor influential, before Louth hit four answered points to lead 1-11 to 1-7 at the break.
Wicklow hit back upon the resumption and were level by the end of the third quarter, 1-12 apiece, but they were struggling to win clean possession from their own kick-outs when Louth pressed up. That, combined with the arrival of the cavalry, helped them kill the game off, as Byrne and McEneaney hit a brace each to book their last eight date against Meath.
They have a storied rivalry but Kelly expects "a different animal" and knows "massive improvement" is necessary.
SCORERS - Louth: R Burns 0-6 (4f, 0-1 '45), E O'Connor 1-2, J McEneaney, D Byrne and P Smith 0-2 each, P Rath, G McSorley, B Duffy, C McKeever, R Moore 0-1 each.
Wicklow: S Furlong 0-4 (3f), M Kenny 1-1, P Cunningham 0-3 (1f), D Hayden, D Boothman, C French, D Healy, J McGrath, R Lambert (f) 0-1 each.
LOUTH: C Lynch 7; P Rath 7, P Reilly 7, K Carr 6; C McKeever 6, J Bingham 7, A Williams 6; J Stewart 7, T Durnin 7; D Marks 6, P Smith 6, B Duffy 7; R Moore 6, E O'Connor 9, R Burns 7. Subs: D McMahon 6 for Williams (BC, 14), J McEneaney 8 for McKeever (47), D Byrne 8 for Moore (51), S Mulroy 6 for Burns (54), G McSorley 7 for Smith (59), K Murphy for Marks (73)
WICKLOW: R Lambert 7; C Hyland 7, S Kelly 7, B Kennedy 7; D Fitzgerald 7, P McLoughlin 6, J Crowe 7; D Boothman 7, N Gaffney 7; D Hayden 6, D Healy 7, C French 6; M Kenny 7, S Furlong 7, P Cunningham 7. Subs: Anthony McLoughlin 7 for Boothman and J McGrath 7 for Cunningham (both 60), P Traynor for McLoughlin (63), R Finn for Kenny (70)
REF - N Cullen (Fermanagh)