Wee bit of hope
Published 23/06/2010 | 05:00
If a GAA committee, tasked with promoting Gaelic football, could ask for a a certain sequence of successes throughout the country, what would the priority wish-list be?
It might be Dublin to win an All-Ireland after 15 years to help win the hearts and minds of some young people who can tell you Avram Grant's last Premier League back four with Portsmouth quicker than they could identify Bernard Brogan? They'd take it gladly.
How about Mayo to banish the many years of heartbreak in Croke Park and carry Sam back across the Shannon 59 years on? Few would begrudge them that.
Kildare's wait has been even longer but, like Dublin, they are continually waging a battle to captivate a young audience in the commuter towns.
In the provinces, an Ulster title for Cavan could help stoke the latent interest in the county that has perished so badly on the back of so many disappointing false dawns.
In Munster, Limerick are surely due a break after 114 years off the football podium, which would give a city and county something to latch on to.
For Louth, geographically the smallest county, but one with two of the biggest provincial towns at either end, the specified target has less elevation. It's the 50th anniversary of their last Leinster final appearance and in between there has been much heartbreak to reflect on.
But late on Sunday afternoon an opportunity presents itself that very few could have anticipated.
Louth are on the cusp of achieving something that arguably better teams didn't manage, most notably in the 1990s, when six semi-finals were contested without a single victory.
They are 70 minutes away from bridging a 50-year gap and ending one of the last great famines the province harbours. Standing in their way is Westmeath, a team which has lost 16 of their last 18 competitive games in league and championship.
Over the last decade and a half many of Leinster's old hang-ups have gone by the wayside. Westmeath have won a Leinster title for the first time, in 2004, 12 months earlier Laois ended a 57-year wait since their last hold over the eastern province. Two years ago Wexford landed themselves in their first Leinster final for 42 years.
So, the climate is right for Louth to bring an end to the misery of the last five decades that records nine Leinster semi-final defeats and spring into life another of the GAA's traditional territories that has been dormant for too long.
In truth, it should have happened years ago, in the '90s to be precise, when bad fortune so often conspired against them.
For Seamus O'Hanlon, the county's most distinguished midfielder of that era, the hardest defeat of all to take in that sequence was 1991, a drawn semi-final against Laois that forced a replay and consequently one of the worst brawls in recent history that has since become a YouTube hit.
"In the drawn game we had something like 20 wides and in the last minute my own brother Cathal was through one-on-one with the Laois goalkeeper Tony McMahon," recalls O'Hanlon.
"He went for a goal when a point would have won the game for us and it was saved.
"If we won we would have gone into a Leinster final fresh against Meath who were on their eighth game of that campaign. Who knows (what might have happened) then?"
The tale of woe became a trend during the 1990s. When Paul Kenny, fresh from success with Meath under-age teams, arrived in 1995 they began to assemble their strongest nucleus of players.
O'Hanlon was in his prime and forwards like Colin Kelly and Stefan White had the capacity to sink any defence on their day.
But in '96 a late Joe McNally goal denied them and the '97 defeat to Offaly was perhaps the most harrowing of all.
O'Hanlon injured an Achilles on his way out of Louth's Pairc Tailteann dressing-room that day and had to withdraw. With him went much of Louth's nerve and they looked a gift horse in the mouth.
Paddy Clarke picked up the baton of misfortune a year later when Meath edged them out by a point as controversy reigned over a Graham Geraghty 'point' that clearly looked wide.
Clarke has a theory about why that Louth team of the 1990s didn't get their heads over the line.
"They were a very strong league team, you could say a winter team. They beat Dublin twice, Tyrone, Down, who were All-Ireland champions. They made Division 1 proper before it was split into two divisions and two sections," reflects Clarke.
"They were big and physical, well able to compete at that level with anyone. But they weren't necessarily a 'top of the ground' team," he ventures.
Right now Clarke believes Louth are a 'top of the ground' team, albeit with less individual class than some of their predecessors. "Louth haven't done well in Division 3 of the league, but they played some wonderful football against Kildare," he continues. "They may be more of a summer team, light but nimble."
O'Hanlon saw a greater collective effort in Navan that his teams weren't always able to produce.
"We might have had five or six players playing really well, but the last night Louth had 10 to 12 stepping up and playing well. There's good balance there," O'Hanlon says.
There's lineage too. Significantly, 12 of the squad have fathers who previously played for the county, including Colin Judge, son of Eugene.
Clarke is sure that Kildare tailored their training without the prospect of losing to Louth being considered.
"I've no doubt they trained with a Leinster final or a semi-final in mind and Louth made the most of that," Clarke adds.
The current manager, Peter Fitzpatrick, who shared in some of those heartbreaking defeats, has not been afraid to look outside the county for help and guidance.
Brian McEniff has come from Donegal for sessions while Peter McDonnell regularly makes the shorter journey from south Armagh and has been a significant influence.
Perhaps better teams from Louth have come as far in recent times. But crucially, for these players, none have been further.