Wicklow 1-14 Louth 1-19: If a Championship exists within the Championship, where weaker counties strive to stem the tide of continual defeat for just one day, Wicklow almost won their All-Ireland yesterday.
Not since 2014 have they celebrated a win in the Championship and they’ve yet to experience that feeling at all under Johnny Magee, in the job three years now.
But with 68 minutes on the clock at Parnell Park and just a point between the teams, and John McGrath about to kick the equaliser, a small pocket of hardened Wicklow fans dared to dream.
Wicklow, who played in spells in search of a rare win, were enjoying one of their purple patches and had just picked off two great points, one of those from McGrath. The sub was about to score his second to level the game when, from nowhere, Louth’s Eoin O’Connor arrived with a full length dive to block the shot and avert the danger.
From the interception, Louth worked the ball up the field and scored a point themselves. It was an inspirational intervention from O’Connor because that was the first of four late points that Louth kicked without reply to win the tie by a slightly flattering five points.
Afterwards, Magee held his head in his hands and conceded that O’Connor, who capped a terrific display with that block, effectively denied Wicklow the win they crave.
Louth, instead, march on to play Meath, their greatest rivals, in the quarter-finals on June 4 and O’Connor, who kicked 1-2 before dropping outfield to nail down the win, will lead the line again.
Manager Kelly claimed a bit of credit for O’Connor’s crucial late block as, in effect, the big St Pat’s man was just following orders.
“We spoke about it in the presentation beforehand, about the skills we’d need in defence,” said Kelly. “We said, ‘listen lads, a block won an All-Ireland for Tyrone (Conor Gormley on Steven McDonnell in 2003) so that’s the importance of it. You have to be willing to go on a fella’s boot today if that’s what it takes.’
“Luckily enough that came through with Eoin’s block. He’s an outstanding talent. He gave it to us in spades today I thought, he was immense.”
It wasn’t vintage football from Louth though who looked troubled by their favourite’s tag after securing promotion from Division 3 during spring. They hit 11 second-half wides and 15 in total and coughed up a terrible goal to Mark Kenny after 16 minutes, the Wicklow man capitalising on a stray kick-out.
“The frightening thing was that Wicklow got in easier than we’d hoped,” said Louth boss Kelly. “We gave them that goal from a kick-out. Look, it’s risk-reward and that’s the way we play.”
Meath infamously stole the 2010 Leinster title from Louth with an illegal goal and beat them again in last year’s Championship but Kelly played down talk of a grudge match. “It’s not about hurt,” insisted Kelly. “I’m hurting from 20 years of losing all sorts of games but that’s not how we work. We’re not a team that says we have to right the wrongs of last year. If you keep looking back, you’ll never go forward.”
It was another tough loss for Wicklow and, realistically, Magee could go through an entire management term without winning a Championship game. “The thing is that there’s no question these lads are good enough to put ourselves in the position to win games, we’ve so many examples of where we’ve done that,” said former Dublin defender Magee. “We just need to start getting over the line.”
Wicklow replied to O’Connor’s palmed 11th-minute goal with 1-3 to take the lead briefly. They dropped off again though and trailed 1-11 to 1-7 at the break before outscoring Louth 0-5 to 0-1 in the 15 minutes after the restart.
The sides were level at 1-12 apiece with 20 minutes left and there was just one in it when sub McGrath had that chance to level it. Wicklow were generally chasing the game though and Louth always looked like they had the quality to get the job done. Their subs came up trumps late on with subs McEneaney, Declan Byrne, and Ger McSorley contributing f0-5 between them.
Scorers for Louth:
R. Burns (0-6, 5 frees); E. O’Connor (1-2); P. Smith, J McEneaney, D. Byrne (0-2 each); R. Moore, C. McKeever, P. Rath, G. McSorley, B Duffy (0-1 each)
Scorers for Wicklow:
M. Kenny (1-1); S. Furlong (0-4, 3 frees); P. Cunningham (0-3, 1 free); J. McGrath, D. Hayden, D. Boothman, C. Ffrench, D. Healy, R, Lambert (1 free), (0-1 each).
C. Lynch; P. Rath (c), P. Reilly, K. Carr; C. McKeever, J. Bingham, A. Williams; T. Durnin, J. Stewart; D. Marks, P. Smith, B. Duffy; R. Moore, E. O’Connor, R. Burns.
D. McMahon for Williams (14, black card); J. McEneaney for McKeever (47); D. Byrne for Moore (51); S. Mulroy for Burns (55); G. McSorley for Smith (55), K. Murphy for Marks (73).
R. Lambert; C. Hyland, S. Kelly (c), B. Kennedy; J. Crowe, P. McLoughlin, D. Fitzgerald; D. Boothman, N. Gaffney; C. Ffrench, D. Healy, D. Hayden; M. Kenny, S. Furlong, P. Cunningham.
J. McGrath for Cunningham (60); A. McLoughlin for Boothman (60); P. Traynor for P McLoughlin (63); R. Finn for Kenny (70).
N. Cullen (Fermanagh).
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