Louth 0-27 Offaly 2-15 AET
By Paul Keane at Croke Park
Louth are back in a Leinster senior football championship final for the first time since 2010 after braving a dramatic extra-time encounter at Croke Park.
A combination of captain Sam Mulroy’s excellence in the additional 20 minutes, 0-7 in normal time from Ciaran Downey and strong showings from Louth’s midfield duo and substitute Craig Lennon all helped propel Mickey Harte’s side through to the May 14 decider.
They will face Dublin or Kildare in the provincial decider having secured back to back wins in the Championship also for the first time since 2010.
Louth may have kicked themselves if they hadn’t won because they led by four points with 62 minutes of normal time played before being reeled in by Offaly who forced extra-time with an Anton Sullivan equaliser.
Louth kicked the first five points of extra-time, with Mulroy supplying four of those, giving them a vital cushion to absorb the concession of an 84th minute Declan Hogan goal.
Craig Lennon impressed late on too, scoring two points in the second-half of extra-time and also winning a free that Mulroy converted to bring his tally to 0-6.
It was an altered Louth lineup from the one that came from eight points down at half-time to dramatically defeat Westmeath in Navan last weekend.
Ciaran Keenan, Paul Matthews and Dylan McKeown all came into the team at the expense of Peter Lynch, Daire McConnon and Ryan Burns.
Offaly made just one change and it was an injury forced one with Cian Donohoe replacing Rory Egan in defence.
It was Louth newcomer McKeown that initially stood out, opening the scoring with a fourth minute point and then doubling his tally with a 15th minute point.
It was only weeks ago that the Dundalk Gaels man was called in to bolster an injury hit Louth panel and he has seized his opportunity.
Downey was on song in the Louth forward line too, booting five terrific points from play in the opening half.
Offaly couldn’t cope with Downey’s incisive running infield, from the left wing across towards the Cusack Stand, before popping a series of right footed scores from the edge of the D.
Yet for all of Louth’s attacking spark and creativity up front, they only went in at half-time on level terms, 0-9 to 1-6.
That was largely down to Peter Cunningham’s brilliantly taken 28th minute goal for the Faithful.
The centre-back missed last season because of army duty but stood out on his return to Croke Park, striking a point from distance before rattling the net five minutes later.
Sullivan cut through the centre in the buildup before hand-passing to his left to pick out the onrushing Cunningham who cut back inside his marker before firing a low shot beyond James Califf.
An encounter simmering with entertainment came to boiling point during a back and forth second-half.
The third quarter belonged to Offaly tho outscored by 0-3 to 0-1 but six Louth points in a row between the 50th and 56th minutes looked to have turned the game decisively in their favour.
They still led by three points with eight minutes of normal time remaining following Downey’s seventh score of the afternoon.
But Louth couldn’t close it out and didn’t score again in normal time despite a number of decent chances.
The best of those chances fell to captain Sam Mulroy who had two shots at goal cleared in the 61st minute.
Offaly, meanwhile, chipped away at the deficit with four points in a row to eventually reel in Louth, Sullivan eventually hitting the leveller in the 74th minute after being fed by Cian Donohoe on the left wing.
Bill Carroll struck the first point of extra-time for Offaly but six Louth points in a row, with Mulroy the hero, effectively won it for the north easterners.
Scorers for Louth: Ciaran Downey 0-7, Sam Mulroy 0-6 (2fs), Craig Lennon 0-3, Dylan McKeown 0-2, Tommy Durnin 0-2, Conor Grimes 0-2, Niall Sharkey 0-2, Conor Early 0-2, Liam Jackson 0-1.
Scorers for Offaly: Dylan Hyland 0-5 (1f), Peter Cunningham 1-1, Declan Hogan 1-0, Ruairi McNamee 0-3 (1f), Nigel Dunne 0-2 (1f), Cian Farrell 0-2 (0-1f), Anton Sullivan 0-1, Bill Carroll 0-1.
Louth: James Califf; Donal McKenny, Dan Corcoran, Ciaran Murphy; Leonard Grey, Niall Sharkey, Conall McKeever; Tommy Durnin, Conor Early; Paul Matthews, Ciaran Downey, Conor Grimes; Ciaran Keenan, Sam Mulroy, Dylan McKeown.
Subs: Daire McConnon for Keenan 32, Liam Jackson for Matthews h/t, Craig Lennon for McKeown h/t, Peter Lynch for Murphy 46, Anthony Williams for McKeever 65. Ryan Burns for Jackson e/t, Conall McCaul for McConnon e/t, McKeever for Corcoran 83, Jackson for McKenny 85, Murphy for Grey 88.
Offaly: Ian Duffy; Declan Hogan, David Dempsey, Lee Pearson; Cian Donohoe, Peter Cunningham, Ciaran Donnelly; Jack McEvoy, Conor McNamee; Dylan Hyland, Ruairi McNamee, Jamie Evans; Cian Farrell, Nigel Dunne, Anton Sullivan.
Subs: Joe Maher for Evans 50, Aaron Leavy for Conor McNamee 56, Bill Carroll for Dunne 56, Jack O’Brien for Pearson 62, Jack Bryant for McEvoy 64. Luke Egan for Sullivan e/t, Nigel Bracken for Donohoe e/t, McEvoy for McNamee e/t, Shane O’Toole Greene for Donnelly 79, Sullivan for Hyland 80+1, Aaron Brazil for Cunningham 73.
Referee: Joe McQuillan (Cavan).