Westmeath 1-9 Louth 1-14
For the second year in a row, Louth's championship starts with an underdog victory on the road against what most folk had assumed was a superior team. A stellar evening's work from Paddy Keenan carried them to a five-point win over a Westmeath that rarely hit any sort of heights.
On a night of small margins, Louth probably had the wind to thank for the foundation they built themselves. There wasn't much to choose between the sides in the early exchanges – indeed we didn't see a score for the opening 10 minutes. Shane Lennon had been unlucky not to flick Louth into a goal lead after he connected with a Conor Grimes shot that dropped in the Westmeath square after seven minutes, only to see the ball clip the left-hand post.
But soon after, John Heslin tapped over a couple of Westmeath points and we were away. Westmeath were quickest to find a gear and Kieran Martin lofted a fine point on the turn with his left foot to push them into a three-point lead on 12 minutes.
But the strong breeze that was drilling down pitch from the town end was bound to tell eventually for Louth and as Keenan's influence grew, so the supply to the Louth forward line increased. Shane Lennon got them off the mark after 15 minutes and Louth followed up quickly with further scores from Andy McDonnell and Derek Maguire.
As the half wore on, Louth’s players found they could use the wind to their advantage. They probably shot a little too readily – 11 first-half wides tells its own story – but every once in a while they caught a friendly gust and it resulted in some spectacular points. Maguire in particular made hay and Declan Byrne’s free just a minute before the break dissected the post from 50 metres on an angle.
It meant that Louth brought a 0-8 to 0-5 lead into half-time with them and nobody was altogether sure if it was going to be enough. Keenan was having a stormer though, fielding ball at midfield and getting forward for scores almost at will. He tacked on three in the 20 minutes after half-time, a display of defiance that carried Louth through a fraught enough period.
For it was in that spell that Westmeath made their shape at winning the game. Heslin iced a difficult free from distance to bring it back to two points before wing-forward Kieran Martin scythed through to plant a cracker of a goal into the top corner on 48 minutes. When James Dolan followed up with a fine score from 40 metres, it put Westmeath 1-8 to 0-9 ahead with 20 to go.
But to Louth's credit, they dug in and found their way home. Substitute Ryan Burns, a 17-year-old Leaving Cert student, got the killer score, a well-taken goal on 58 minutes after his marker Damien Dolan went down with cramp at exactly the wrong moment. From there, it was never in doubt.
They go on to meet Kildare on June 8th.
WESTMEATH: 1 D Quinn; 2 D Dolan, 3 K Gavin, 4 K Maguire; 5 R Foley, 6 P Sharry, 7 J Dolan (0-1); 8 D Duffy, 9 R Connellan; 10 C McCormack, 11 G Egan (0-2), 12 K Martin (1-1); 13 D Glennon (0-1), 14 J Heslin (0-3, 2 frees), 15 D Dolan (0-1). Subs: 21 D McCormack for Connellan (29 mins); 23 D Harte for Damien Dolan (60 mins); 22 A Giles for C McCormack (64 mins); 19 J Gonoud for Foley (69 mins).
LOUTH: 1 N Gallagher; 2 P Rath, 3 D Finnegan, 4 G O'Hare; 5 J O'Brien, 6 D Crilly, 7 A Reid; 8 P Keenan (0-3), 9 M Fanning; 21 C Grimes, 11 B White, 12 A McDonnell (0-2); 13 D Byrne (0-3, 0-2 free), 14 S Lennon (0-1), 15 D Maguire (0-5). Subs: 18 R Burns (1-0) for Lennon (56 mins); 20 B Donnelly for Fanning (56 mins); 26 J Stewart for White (63 mins, black card); 10 P Reilly for Reid (67 mins).
Referee: M Deegan (Laois)