Battling Louth end agony of 50-year wait

THAT only two points separated them in the end was a testament to Westmeath’s spirit, but Louth were full value for a win that puts them into the Leinster final for the first time since 1960.

Strangely, the celebrations were more muted than after they accounted for Kildare in the quarter-final, but thanks to that win, this team now has expectations.

They coped with the pressure of being favourites quite well and had the upper-hand for most of a game that didn’t really come to life until Westmeath’s Paul Bannon rammed a penalty to the net in the 48th minute.

Before then, you could almost hear a pin drop at times, with at least 40,000 of the official attendance of 60,035 having departed straight after Meath and Dublin.

The fare wasn’t bad but it wasn’t brilliant either, and yet those who hung around for the evening kick-off were treated to two contenders for the Goal of the Year award.

Louth began smartly with Paddy Keenan and Brian White providing a firm anchor around the middle, while full-forward Shane Lennon terrorised Donal O’Donoghue, who was eventually put out of his misery 10 minutes into the second half. They were direct and pacy, and without ever reaching the heights of their last game, still looked threatening in attack.

In contrast, Westmeath were laboured, clearly missing the injured Martin Flanagan on the edge of the square.

They began with Denis Glennon dropping deep, just as he did in their victory over Wicklow, but dispensed with the tactic quickly enough as they experienced little joy further up, Eamonn McAuley and Ronan Greene marking very tightly in the Louth defence.

Peter Fitzpatrick’s crew began in confident fashion and had four points on the board by the eighth minute, with Westmeath wondering what was going on.

White opened the scoring from a third minute free. Keenan launched a mighty effort with his left boot – the first of three points from play – before Lennon found the target from a tight angle. Another White free and the men in red were cruising.

Dessie Dolan finally got the Lakesiders off the mark in the ninth minute, with a cultured kick and Paul Greville followed up quickly after reacting quickest when Glennon’s free struck the upright.

The margin was down to one by the 29th minute, when Glennon finished well on the swivel, after taking a pass from John Smyth. Smyth was on the field as a substitute for Derek Heavin, who had to be stretchered off in the 23rd minute after suffering a serious looking knee injury and later being taken to hospital.

Not for the first time though, Louth were able to respond when their lead looked threatened, just as they had done on three occasions in the previous round.

Lennon followed a brilliant fetch with a chipped point and after Glennon shot a wide at the other end, Colm Judge’s free made it 0-8 to 0-5 at the interval.

Louth’s influential half time sub Páraic Smyth was amongst the scorers as that margin stretched to four but Bannon’s goal made it game on.

The decision by Syl Doyle to award a penalty was the correct one as Smyth’s high ball was touched on by Dolan into the path of Glennon, who was tripped in the act of shooting by Mick Fanning, although Dessie Finnegan got the yellow card.

Bannon drove powerfully down the middle with Neil Gallagher diving to his left but again Louth replied with points from Keenan and Derek Maguire before Judge struck for a sensational goal in the 59th minute. The move started at the other end of the field when Glennon was dispossessed inside the Louth square. Suddenly, Adrian Reed was feeding Smith, who saw off the attentions of Francis Boyle before jinking between two more Westmeath defenders and galloping goalwards.

He unselfishly laid the ball off to Judge and the Newtown Blues man made no mistake from close range.

That looked like that but Westmeath still had one more kick. Greville, who was their most effective forward, converted a free before launching a long ball towards the danger zone in the 65th minute.

By this stage, Flanagan was on and with his first real opportunity, he made a serious impact. The Tyrrellspass man sneaked in from behind Finnegan to claim possession, then dummied the full-back brilliantly before placing a shot calmly from an angle into the net at the near post.

Glennon pointed almost immediately after and suddenly there was just the minimum between the sides.

But Louth were not about to let this slip and it was Judge who gave them that vital two-point margin, dummying off his favoured left side before arcing over from 30m with his right boot.

Westmeath did have chances late on but John Smyth dithered in space on the 21 and lost the ball, while Bannon blazed wide from a good position after.

But in the end, there was no doubting the better side had won and in the process, set up a local derby with Meath.

Louth: N Gallagher; E McAuley, D Finnegan, R Greene; R Finnegan, M Fanning, J O'Brien; P Keenan (0-3), B White (0-4, 3f); A McDonnell, M Brennan (0-1), A Reid (0-1); C Judge (1-2, 1f), S Lennon (0-2), JP Rooney.

Subs: P Smith (0-1) for McDonnell (HT); D Maguire (0-1) for Rooney (53).

Westmeath: G Connaughton; F Boyle, D O'Donoghue, K Maguire; M Ennis, K Martin, D Harte; D Duffy, P Bannon (1-1, 1-0pen); D Heavin, C Lynam, G Egan (0-1); P Greville (0-5, 2f), D Dolan (0-1), D Glennon (0-2).

Subs: J Smyth for Heavin (22); J Keane for O'Donoghue (46); M Flanagan (1-0) for Lynam (54); T McDaniel for Egan (61); D Healy for Martin (64).

Ref: S Doyle (Wexford).

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