Conor Grimes, still just 21, but standing well over six feet and weighing in at heavyweight status, powered through Antrim’s defence for the game’s decisive 70th-minute goal.
The sides were level at that stage when Grimes took on the responsibility and barged in along the right endline, playing a neat one-two with Ruairi Moore, before blasting to the Antrim net.
Derek Maguire added an insurance point at the death for Louth, bringing his own tally to 1-2, but there was no denying who the game breaker was as Louth capped promotion from Division 4 with the overall title.
“Conor’s application is second to none,” said Kelly. “His skill-set is very high for a big man and he probably plays the game like a slight corner-forward, that’s his skill-set. He’s making the runs of a dainty inside forward and he has the shooting skills of an inside forward but he’s very robust, he’s big and he’s strong and he’s committed.
“Listen, he could be anything, he really could be anything. He’s not 22 yet and I think the full-back, the centre-back, the midfielder and the full-forward are not 22 yet either.”
When suggested that this was surely the most pleasing aspect from the win, that Kelly’s young team is finally beginning to make its mark after a tricky 18 months or so, the manager shook his head.
“I’ll tell you what’s most pleasing about this, it’s that those lads have worked their arses off since pre-Christmas and we’re trying to set standards that if you work hard you get the rewards.
“ We’ll see if we can introduce another few young fellas into the squad on the back of the minor and U-21 teams and try to keep the pressure on with guys coming into the squad the whole time.
“If we’re beaten, it won’t be for the lack of workrate. But there’s a fair amount of quality in there too and I thought it was a good match overall. There was some quality fielding and some really good plays in pressure situations so it was a good day.”
Antrim were big favourites to get the job done after going through the Division 4 campaign unbeaten. They led 1-9 to 1-5 at half-time and stretched the margin to five points with less than half an hour to go.
But Jim McEneaney’s 59th-minute goal for Louth was crucial, hauling them right back into it and when the game hung in the balance late on ex-U-21 attacker Grimes delivered in some style.
Louth will head away to London next weekend for a training camp ahead of their May 14 Leinster championship clash with Carlow. That’s a crucial date now and it’s not lost on Kelly that when Louth previously captured the Division 3 title, in 2011, they went out and lost to Carlow in the opening round of the Championship.
“The omens are there and they’re not great,” Kelly admitted. “We definitely won’t be getting carried away with ourselves.”
As for Antrim, joint boss Frank Fitzsimons admitted he was just happy to have the league over and done with and promotion secured. They have a testing Ulster opener against Fermanagh with the carrot of a clash with Donegal for the winners.
Tomas McCann continues to be their main man with 2-34 overall in the league and another eight points here.
“It’s one of those things, Louth took their goals well and that obviously killed us off,” shrugged Fitzsimons.
D Maguire (1-2), J McEneaney (1-1, 1 side-line), R Burns (0-4, 3 frees), C Grimes (1-0), D Byrne (0-3), J Califf (0-2, 2 frees).
T McCann (0-8, 6 frees), M Fitzpatrick (1-1), C Murray (0-2), B Neeson (1 free), R Johnson, P McBride (0-1 each).
C Lynch; P Rath, P Reilly, K Toner; D Maguire, D McMahon, E Lafferty; J Stewart, J Califf; D Byrne, J McEneaney, T Durnin; C McKeever, C Grimes, R Burns.
J Bingham for Toner (13); A Williams for Bingham (35+1 BC); R Moore for McMahon (44); G McSorley for Burns (75).
C Kerr; N Delargy, C Burke, R Johnson; K O’Boyle, M Johnson, J Laverty; N McKeever, M McCann; C Murray, K Niblock, J Carron; B Neeson, M Fitzpatrick, T McCann.
R Murray for Neeson (48); P McBride for Carron (53), D McAleese for Fitzpatrick (58), M Sweeney for Laverty (63), J Crozier for Burke (67).
J Henry (Mayo).