Struggling to pull out of downward spiral
Louth should follow Dundalk FC's example to halt painful decline
THEY'VE seen some false dawns in Louth over the years but this spring they were brimming with optimism after two win in their first three league games. But, following a hammering by Sligo, the early promise crumbled as Louth were relegated to Division 4 with a whimper.
They've had time to regroup and they're at home to Westmeath in the championship today with their confidence severely dented and the credibility of their management team also being tested.
Colin Kelly is not a miracle worker. He succeeded Aidan O'Rourke, who also had a tough time in the hot-seat, and brought in respected selectors Eugene Judge and Ollie McDonnell for his two-year tenure.
Kelly represented Louth for over a decade as a player and then enjoyed success managing the county's under 21 side. But he has taken on a side that is at a low point. Louth's fortunes have plummeted since losing the controversial 2010 Leinster final to Meath.
That wonderful odyssey of five years back saw them establish their place in the top 12 and reach their first provincial senior final in 50 years, only to be thwarted at the death in that infamous finale. They've never recovered.
Now, with almost an entirely different team on view from then, and following successive relegations, they must gear up for battles with Leitrim, Waterford, Antrim, Wicklow, and London next spring. That's a steep fall in a short time.
"It was a disappointing league campaign all round," admits one of their most experienced players, Adrian Reid. "Nobody likes losing but we are a team in transition; a lot of guys retired last year and we had a lot of young players coming to the set-up.
"On paper we appeared as favourites against Limerick in the last match in the league at home but we have no complaints over that game - we didn't deserve to win it. It wasn't just in the Limerick game that we slipped up: there were other earlier games in the league where we should have got a win and those losses ultimately cost us."
Division 4 is tough to get out of and there is no batch of youngsters ready to step up. The county's underage structures are not strong enough to support them even if there were. The organisation from top down is certainly lacking.
Louth may be the smallest county in Ireland but based on the census of four years ago, they have the 18th highest population in Ireland. So there are no excuses.
Money can be found too. Currently, seven Louth clubs have requests with the local council's planning department for development work. That demonstrates how progress can be made - and resources found - when necessary.
The county also hosts two SSE Airtricity League clubs, which compete for resources in terms of players, support and sponsorship; and to worsen that effect they also lost leaders like Paddy Keenan and Shane Lennon in the past few months. Brian White, Mick Fanning and John O'Brien are also unavailable. In all, eight starters have departed since last year.
"It goes without saying that the lads are a huge loss," says Reid. "But we have to move on and draw a line in the sand. We have got some really promising players like Ryan Burns and Conor Grimes and a host of other players for the future of Louth football and have to look to them now."
It's also time for the administration to map a way out of the mire for those players emerging. Roscommon, Tipperary, Monaghan, Longford and Cavan have all shown what can be achieved.
Louth need to start with changes to their schools and underage systems. Last year saw the establishment of a Football Review Committee. A check on why they are losing so many players in the 17-21 bracket should be foremost in their thoughts.
Even if they win today, which would be huge, the players are realistic about what can be achieved.
"There is no point in me standing here and saying we're going to win the Leinster title this year," Reid admits. "We definitely feel we can beat Westmeath and the winners meet Wexford in the next round and we have already beaten them in Division 3. But having said that we are not looking beyond the Westmeath game."
The players know back-to-back, wins in Leinster are achievable and what will also help is the presence of Mick O'Dwyer as an adviser. As will the knowledge they have of today's opponents too - it's their second championship meeting with the Lake County in 12 months, and they also met in the Leinster SFC and qualifiers of 2012.
"Yeah we have met a lot and both of us had disappointing league campaigns," Reid adds. "Still, we have to be confident that we can get a result but I'm sure they will be confident as well. Micko has been in with us in an advisory role; he has a wealth of experience behind him and has definitely given us some good insights and thoughts. That will help."
O'Dwyer is 78 but retains the energy and love for the game of a 28-year-old and has been with the team at recent training sessions in Darver. If nothing else his presence will create a bit of a stir and show the players that people still harbour an interest in Louth football, even when the team is struggling.
It's not that long ago that top names were associated with the county. Former manager and current TD Peter Fitzpatrick regularly used advisers like former All-Ireland-winning Donegal manager Brian McEniff and Armagh's Peter McDonnell, as well as former Dublin goalkeeper John O'Leary.
O'Dwyer's status and involvement, no matter how limited, will give the players some bit of a lift and that's to be welcomed - even with Dublin's dominance meaning that the other counties in Leinster are most likely playing for a runners-up prize at best. Beating Dublin is not Louth's battle. They have enough to be getting on with.
Those at the helm of Louth GAA could do worse than study the fate of Dundalk FC, who were facing one of their darkest days in July 2012 but are now homing in on successive League of Ireland titles. It was only three years ago that the club revealed that they could not afford to pay another week's wages to their players. Last year, however, they scored 72 goals on the way to winning the title and turned Oriel Park into a fortress, collecting 40 points out of 48 on offer there.
"It is a lot more difficult in smaller counties," Reid argues. "We have two big towns (Dundalk and Drogheda) where soccer would be dominant. But there is also a big GAA presence, and I wouldn't be putting our difficulties down to the soccer influence in those towns."
The emergence of talented players like 18-year-old Burns has been a boost, but Louth need more like him. Lots more.
Today's game is their 1,000th competitive fixture across all competitions. Overall, their record is decent - they have won 481 of those - but their qualifier record is poor, with just nine wins from 24 games.
The health of the county lies with those who sit at the top table. The board must provide new structures soon or they will just continue to lose ground. No matter what footing a win today would provide.
Sunday Indo Sport