Widely tipped for a swift return flight back to the bottom tier at the start of the campaign, Colin Kelly’s heroes booked their ticket to Division 2 with a game to spare and earned another crack at silverware in Croke Park next Saturday.
But, while it’s always nice to prove the doubters wrong, it was the setbacks they overcame in the build-up to the promotion-decider that made victory over All-Ireland semi-finalists Tipperary so impressive.
After a heavy and morale-bruising defeat to Armagh, they returned to the scene of their 2015 watershed to take on a Tipp team on a four-game winning streak – hotly fancied to make it five.
The obstacles weren’t all psychological. Anthony Williams was ruled out on foot of his red card against the Orchard County; Liam Dullaghan missed out through injury; Ryan Burns was stood down on the morning of the game due to illness; and they lost full back Paddy Reilly to a black card after 25 minutes.
As a result Louth entered a potentially make-or-break clash with Kurt Murphy and Sam Mulroy making their first national league starts, in a game that would truly test Kelly’s unwavering belief in the depth of his squad.
If all that wasn’t enough, a lacklustre first-half display and a near chronic tendency to turn over possession in the final third made for an uncomfortable half-time break for the visiting fans, who out-numbered their hosts at a vast and cavernous Semple Stadium.
The stats revealed that Louth kicked one more first-half wide than their hosts, but Tipperary looked infinitely more dangerous and Liam Kearns must have felt a little aggrieved that his team didn’t adjourn at the break with more to show for their efforts.
Louth defended well, but they needed a fine save from Craig Lynch to deny Brian Fox and rode their luck again in injury-time when Conor Sweeney cracked a penalty off an upright after Padraig Rath was adjudged to have taken down Michael Quinlivan.
Philip Austin rescued a point from the rebound to make it 0-8 to 0-6 at half-time, but Louth were no doubt the happier with the scoreline.
They seemed to be clinging to Tipp’s coat-tails at times, drawing level twice in the opening quarter as Declan Byrne started and finished a fine move to make it 3-3, before Eoin O’Connor cancelled out a Jack Kennedy score.
Tipp edged two ahead, but it looked like they might have to a settle for the minimum margin at the break when Tommy Durnin swung one over with his left boot to make it 0-7 to 0-6.
There didn’t seem to be much doubt about the penalty, but Louth protested vociferously and still maintained afterwards that Rath was not guilty.
Either way they were glad of the let-off and with the game still very much in the melting pot, their reaction after the break would be crucial.
Kelly insisted there was no half-time tantrums and Louth were certainly cool, calm and collected after the re-start.
James Stewart set the tone with a surging run and rasping shot that Evan Comerford tipped over the bar and although the sides traded the next two scores, it seemed only a matter of time before Louth would draw level.
The honour fell to the returning Andy McDonnell, who looked as if he’d never been away at times.
With parity restored, Louth didn’t ease off the throttle, and further points from Derek Maguire and John Bingham made it 0-12 to 0-10 with 15 minutes left on the clock.
Tipp would only manage two more points from that juncture and both were frees from Conor Sweeney.
The first came after Declan Byrne hand-tripped Jack Kennedy as he surged goalwards. Whatever your views on cynical fouls and black cards, it was one of the most important moments of the match. No-one would have blamed Byrne for not committing the foul, but there wasn’t a Louth fan in the house who didn’t feel it was the right decision.
As if to underline that fact, O’Connor immediately restored Louth’s two-point cushion and he did it again a few minutes later when Sweeney completed Tipp’s scoring for the day.
Louth were still on top and crucially, they didn’t panic or try to sit back on such a precarious lead.
Ger McSorley stretched a tiring Tipp defence with a searing run down the right flank before cutting in to kick a rare one off his left boot.
The five minutes added by Padraig O’Sullivan were excruciating, but that man James Stewart rounded off a superb individual display with another gut-busting run and unselfish cross to Conall McKeever, who slapped over the insurance point.
There was no way back for Tipp and moments later Louth’s promotion was confirmed when O’Sullivan eventually called time on an absorbing contest.
Tipperary have a second chance next week when they make the long trek to the Athletic Grounds for another winner-takes all showdown with Armagh, who laboured to a two-point win over neighbours Antrim on Saturday night.
Louth await the winners in the final which is fixed for Croke Park on Saturday, April 8th and you can bet your life that, to a man, they want another crack at Armagh.
In the meantime, they have a free pass this weekend when a Sligo side in mid-table limbo visit Drogheda. A win would see Louth top the table, but Kelly will be more interested in resting and protecting players, while also rewarding those who have soldiered through the campaign with little game time to show for their efforts.
It’s not a bad position to be in when everyone expected you to be scrapping for your life at the other end of the table!
LOUTH: Craig Lynch; Padraig Rath, Patrick Reilly, John Bingham 0-1; Derek Maguire 0-2, Kurt Murphy, James Stewart 0-1; Tommy Durnin 0-1, Andy McDonnell 0-2; Declan Byrne 0-1, Paraic Smith 0-1f, Bevan Duffy; Adrian Reid, Eoin O’Connor 0-5 (1f), Sam Mulroy. Subs: Kevin Carr for P Reilly (25 BC), Ger McSorley 0-1 for S Mulroy (40), Darren McMahon for D Byrne (59 BC), Ruairi Moore for T Durnin (65), Conall McKeever 0-1 for A Reid (70+).
TIPPERARY: Evan Comerford; Alan Campbell, Paddy Codd, Willie Connors; Bill Maher, Robbie Kiely, Jimmy Feehan; Liam Casey, Jack Kennedy 0-1; Josh Keane 0-1f, Kevin O’Halloran 0-1f, Brian Fox; Conor Sweeney 0-4 (3f), Michael Quinlivan 0-2, Liam McGrath 0-2. Subs: Philip Austin 0-1 for J Keane (20), Kevin Fahey for B Maher (ht), Liam Boland for L O’Halloran (59), Shane O’Connell for M Quinlivan (65 BC).
REFEREE: P O’Sullivan (Kerry).