Things looking up for Louth as Kelly set for Royal rumble
This January feels a little different for Louth manager Colin Kelly.
Now in his third season in charge of the Wee County, Kelly can see little things coming good at the right time. He stresses that there's a number of reasons for that. His young squad are, he points out, a little older and wiser and stronger.
They also have banked the experience of winning a trophy in Croke Park, and this year they have been boosted by the addition of more young talent, as well as the return to the ranks of the experienced Derek Crilly and Andy McDonnell.
It means Louth bounced into their new season with renewed optimism. Since before Christmas, Kelly has been running a panel roughly 40 strong. They went down to Tyrone in Crossmaglen's O Fiaich Cup tournament, and while the result (2-19 to 0-14) didn't read well, Kelly saw enough to suggest that they were in a good place.
"That game was a little closer than the scoreline suggests," Kelly says. "We just gave away silly scores and frees at the wrong time. But we were with them for long periods - it wasn't like last year when Tyrone were head and shoulders above the rest in the competition.
"So we took a lot of positives from that and we learned from it, as you do when you play top teams like Tyrone."
Since that game, they've won all three of their O'Byrne Cup matches, beating Westmeath, Carlow and Maynooth University.
Their cause was helped by having just two front-line players college-tied, in McDonnell (UCD) and Ryan Burns (DCU); another, Sam Mulroy, will also be looked at when the league rolls around.League football will be more intense this season as Louth are back in the third tier after winning the Division 4 title last season.
Their campaign starts with a trip to O'Moore Park to face Laois, though Kelly is reluctant to publicly state what their targets might be. "Winning the three games hasn't surprised us at all," he continues.
"And over the last couple of years I've seen the team develop some traits. We are more resilient, more confident as a group but we are still very young.
"We could have a backline with five lads in their early twenties, a midfielder in his early twenties and maybe even a whole full-forward line none of whom are even 20 yet, so we're young but we're developing.
"We're all in the business of winning games. You want to win, you don't leave the dressing-room thinking you're going to lose.
"But to stand here and state goals, you don't know what it going to happen. Like, this time last year no one would have said that Tipperary were going to play in an All-Ireland semi-final, or Clare would be in Division 2, would they?"
Kelly falls in line with the majority of managers for whom the implementation of the mark has made little difference.
"The days of a goalkeeper kicking it 60 yards is gone to the likes of a Seamus O'Hanlon who'll go up and grab ball and put you on the front foot," he argues. "Now it's all about retention of possession and transitioning the ball. It's risk versus reward so you'll still see most teams kicking it out to their corner-backs if they can."
Instead, Kelly is trying to let his players play the way that comes most naturally to them.
"Look, football is still a skill-based game," he says. "There's a lot of negativity around it and it has evolved a lot from the game I played 20 years ago but we're trying to get the lads to enjoy themselves and be expressive."
Before the League starts, tomorrow offers a shot at local rivals Meath in Navan in the O'Byrne Cup semi-final.
"It's always special. We haven't always been at the right side of the result but it brings something different and there's a lot of history there," says Kelly.
"Not just recent history which a lot of people talk about but down through the years. I remember playing Meath in '98 and we lost narrowly and that was in between them winning two All-Irelands.
"We have Meath and if we win that we're into a O'Byrne Cup final and then it's Laois and we won't look past that. We're not like a Dublin who can look deep into the summer."