Tuesday 23 May 2017

Wheel turns full circle as Louth go up another level

Louth boss Colin Kelly can look forward to his team’s clash with Sligo on Sunday, with promotion to Division 2 already secured. Photo: Piaras O Midheach/Sportsfile
Louth boss Colin Kelly can look forward to his team’s clash with Sligo on Sunday, with promotion to Division 2 already secured. Photo: Piaras O Midheach/Sportsfile
Colm Keys

Colm Keys

It takes a double-check to confirm that Louth's ill-fated second round qualifier trip to Semple Stadium to play Tipperary was, in fact, just over 20 months ago. Given the journey they have travelled since, it seems like a lifetime away.

That 23-point drubbing was, arguably, one of Louth's most crushing days. They returned to the scene of the crime on Sunday last and with a second-half performance that manager Colin Kelly rates right up there with anything the county has produced on his watch and possibly in 20 years, securing a second successive promotion and taking them back into Division 2 from where they began their freefall in 2014.

The recovery has been swift and against the tide of faith.

Kelly had yet to take over when their only All-Star Paddy Keenan retired at the age of 28. Others drifted away too, leaving his dressing-room barren of experience and with a distinctly novice feel.

Humiliation

In that context, maybe the drop to Division 4, followed by that Semple Stadium humiliation, was well signposted. But if the jump back up to Division 3 was well within range, their subsequent leap looked beyond them in a group that contained All-Ireland semi-finalists Tipperary, Armagh and Laois.

Louth's Andy McDonnell. Photo: David Fitzgerald/Sportsfile
Louth's Andy McDonnell. Photo: David Fitzgerald/Sportsfile

So keen were they to airbrush the memory of their most recent visit to Thurles that they billeted overnight in a different hotel.

For those who had been present that day it was in their back of their minds but never a topic.

Having lost so heavily a week earlier to Armagh in Drogheda, after four successive wins, there were more pressing concerns.

Kelly's mother Celine had passed away on the previous Friday and he wonders if it impacted. "We were totally honest, spoke at length about the previous Sunday. There were reasons for the performance," he said.

"I suppose when you consider where my head was in the week up to the Armagh match, you're probably saying this doesn't affect teams. But obviously, it has some effect because it was our worst performance in the league. How to explain the effect it has? You can't.

"We spoke about the place. It's a special ground. There is a lot of history attached to it in GAA terms and in our own terms and said we can make it a special day. We were conscious of eradicating the memories.

"But when you come into the ground, it hits you. This is where it all went pear-shaped. Then, when we threw the shackles off and had a cut in the second half, arguably it was up there with the best 35 minutes I've seen under my watch and maybe in 20 years."

Ahead of Sunday's home game with Sligo, it guarantees a second successive league final, well ahead of schedule and against all expectations. "When I sat down with the chairman three years ago I said that in five years we need to be thinking about being back as a strong Division 2 team," he recalls.

It's why Kelly described Division 3 as Louth's 'Super 8s' - the push for higher league status always paramount in their thinking.

"To improve you have to be playing against better opposition all the time because you learn more things about yourself. We're steadily making progress up through the leagues. When you get to that standard (Division 2), then all things lead to you being ultra-competitive in a championship.

"Okay, you might have to face Dublin in Leinster but there is another route you can go down. And if you're a strong Division 2 team you should be really competitive into the latter stages of a qualifier which would take you into a Super 8.

"At the minute I feel our priority is to get back up to that level. We're into the top 16 in league standings. Could we pushing into a top 12? That would be the next aim. That's, for me, why the league is the most important competition. We all know the stature that the championship is held in and we all speak about the championship being the main goal.

"For our lads to achieve what they achieved last Sunday and now go play another national final in Croke Park is where it's at. We're going into Croke Park again with a realistic chance of winning another competition."

Getting Andy McDonnell and Paraic Smith back was a big lift, Eoin O'Connor also returned and delivered four stunning points that Kelly feels "almost single-handedly kicked us into Division 2." Strength and conditioning coach Aaron Rogers also comes in for high praise.

"There probably wouldn't have been too much faith in the team. I've always had faith but we've pieced it together slowly, got the right fellas in the right positions, trying to get real pace into the team. Eoin didn't play last year, he was travelling, probably a bit disillusioned with where his career was at yet did what he did on Sunday. It's been a long time putting it together and it still needs improvement."

Irish Independent

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