Goals Tipp balance as Louth miss out again
SILVERWARE evaded Louth’s grasp for the second time this season, but no-one should be feeling too down in the mouth.
Even before Saturday night’s Division 3 decider at a practically empty Croke Park, the National League was fading to a speck in the rearview mirror; destination Championship.
A trophy would obviously have been a welcome bonus, capping a fine spring campaign, but Louth’s league final was in Thurles just over a fortnight ago and the real prize was promotion.
Division 2 status and a big championship scalp - preferably of the Royal variety - would trump an O’Byrne Cup and/or Divison 3 title every day of the week.
To a man, Colin Kelly’s players would have traded last year’s Division 4 crown for a win over Meath in Leinster, and perspective is just as important in defeat as victory.
It’s a well-worn cliche, but Louth lost very little in defeat to Tipp and will attack the championship with renewed gusto this summer.
For one thing, the nine-point winning margin deeply flattered Tipperary.
They were the better team alright, but the second goal was a gift, and the third arrived in the depths of injury-time as Louth committed everyone bar goalkeeper Craig Lynch to attack.
In may ways it was a similar game to the O’Byrne Cup final defeat to Dublin in late January.
Louth played better than that on Saturday night, starting well and kicking 19 scores over the 70-odd minutes.
But the compass malfunctioned for a crucial spell just before the break and, like Dublin, Tipp had the poise and power to reap maximum advantage.
It was another harsh lesson in the damage good teams can inflict when you switch off for even the briefest time.
Armagh all but clinched victory inside the opening 15 minutes with a similar powerplay in Drogheda last month , so while it can hardly be described as a trend, it’s a facet of the game Colin Kelly will be keen to address.
That said, he would have had no complaints after 25 minutes on Saturday.
Louth started like they finished in Thurles as Andy McDonnell, Declan Byrne and Paraic Smith opened a 0-3 to no score lead.
They then kicked four wides in a row and Tipp dropped a few subtle hints as to what they were capable of when Michael Quinlivan dragged a daisy-cutter narrowly wide and Anthony Williams made a vital interception.
They pulled two points back through Conor Sweeny, from a free, and Liam Casey, but further scores from Ryan Burns and Tommy Durnin kept Louth in control.
The Reds were defending well, while still committing men to attack, and further points from Smith and Eoin O’Connor made it 0-7 to 0-4.
But that early fluency in attack seemed to desert Louth in a crucial 10-minute spell before the break.
They coughed up a few cheap turnovers in the final third and four points in as many minutes drew Tipp level and reminded everyone just how they reached an All-Ireland semi-final last summer.
And that was before the goal, which stemmed from a slick move from one side of pitch to the other and ended with Sweeney setting up midfielder Liam Casey for a quality finish.
Corner back Alan Campbell made it 1-5 without reply shortly afterwards and although the sides traded two points apiece in the run-in to half-time, all of Louth’s impressive early endeavour was null and void as Tipp adjourned with a 1-11 to 0-9 lead.
Louth repeated their earlier bright start after the break, cutting Tipp’s lead to two.
Declan Byrne and Robbie Kiely traded the first two scores, but a couple of Ryan Burns points, which sandwiched a Tommy Durnin effort, made it 1-12 to 0-13, and seemingly game on.
But again Tipp showed their class, hitting back with 1-3 over the next five minutes, with just a Durnin point in reply at the other end. The goal was a killer blow. Bevan Duffy did brilliantly to block and gather a certain goal on the edge of the Louth square, but as he tried to smuggle the ball out of defence he was dispossessed and Conor Sweeney blasted an unstoppable finish past Craig Lynch.
At 2-15 to 0-14 Tipp’s lead was out to seven and they never looked in any danger thereafter.
Louth did string together three points without reply, all from frees from Jim McEneaney (2) and Declan Byrne, but the excellent Josh Keane restored a five-point cushion as normal-time ended.
Anthony Nolan would add a further six, but Louth were only huffing and puffing at that stage and it was Tipp who finished with a flourish with subs Liam McGrath and Liam Boland extending their lead.
Sweeney’s second goal arrived after the allotted six minutes had elapsed and was a bit farcical as two Tipperary players found themselves beyond Louth’s last line, leaving Lynch completely exposed and helpless.
It was harsh on Louth, but they won’t dwell on the defeat or the manner of it for too long.
Most Louth fans would have been happy to avoid a quick return to the bottom tier at the start of the year, so to win promotion to Division 2, just two seasons after dropping from the second tier is quite remarkable.
Tipperary are a lot further along in their development process than Louth, but Colin Kelly has literally worked wonders to take a team kicked out the gate in Thurles less than three years ago to compete with a side that went on to reach an All-Ireland semi-final.
The next big objective for the Louth boss and his players will be a championship scalp followed by a decent run in Leinster or the Qualifiers.
Wicklow should be dispatched in six weeks time, paving the way to another quarter-final date with Meath.
It remains to be seen how the Royals have progressed under new boss Andy McEntee, but Louth will certainly feel they have improved since last year’s meeting with their near neighbours, whom they join in Division 2 in 2018.