Louth must be wary of high-flying minnows
Like a racehorse that takes advantage of a drop in class, Louth head to Portlaoise on Sunday hoping to prove that there's life in the old nag yet! The Reds' just couldn't live up to an artificially inflated handicap mark in Division 2 this season, but they'll be back at a more appropriate grade when they saddle up alongside Carlow.
The counties were both plying their trade in Division 4 just three seasons ago and with Carlow securing promotion to Division 3 this term, they will meet again in 2019. And with the bookies installing Louth as only very slight favourites, everything points to a close-run thing in O'Moore Park. But Louth head to the midlands with some heavy baggage. It remains to be seen if the emotional cuts and scars endured during that torrid league campaign have fully healed.
Morale and self belief are essential fuels in championship football and while Louth were running near empty by the end of the national league, Carlow will have a full tank of both after securing promotion to Division 3. Pete McGrath has passed many examinations of his managerial acumen over the course of a long and distinguished career, but transforming Louth from Division 2 flops into a Championship force this summer will test the Down native like never before.
They may negotiate this tricky hurdle against Carlow, which would set up a daunting quarter-final clash with Kildare, but beyond that, even the most optimistic of Louth supporter will find it hard to envisage a summer odyssey that extends beyond round one or two of the qualifiers.
But the Reds' current plight shouldn't come as any great surprise to fans. Before a ball was kicked in anger this season, McGrath lost a string of players that played a key role in the back-to-back promotions under Colin Kelly. For one reason or another Adrian Reid, Padraig Rath, Paraic Smith, James Califf, Derek Crilly, Eoin O'Connor, Ruairi Moore and Kevin Carr did not return in 2018, and as the season stumbled from bad to worse this spring Conall McKeever, Paddy Reilly and James Stewart opted off the panel too. When you add in medium to long-term injuries to Jim McEneaney, Sam Mulroy and John Bingham, the list of experienced and talented players unavailable to the new manager stretches into double figures.
You can't legislate for injuries, especially to two key forwards, but did McGrath do enough to try and convince those experienced players to continue under his new regime? Or, for that matter, was enough done to convince those that left mid-season to hang around for better days? Louth is not blessed with an enormous pool of talent and can ill-afford to let so many players of that calibre drift away. Inter-county squads are always fluid and evolving, but the turnover in personnel since McGrath took the reins has been way beyond the realms of natural erosion and it is a worrying state of play for Wee County die-hards.
The upheaval was certainly too great to survive in Division 2, as the Reds succumbed to seven straight defeats with an average concession just shy of 22 points. They leaked 13 goals and netted just one at the other end. Across all four divisions of the national league no team conceded more and only two sides scored less.
Perhaps understandably given the results and injuries, McGrath and his selectors never came close to settling on their best XV, which is in stark contrast to their opponents on Sunday. Carlow may have lost Brendan Murphy to the States for the summer and that's a hammer blow, but they secured promotion with a very settled team and a highly effective, if slightly sterile game plan.
Louth may be dropping back to a more realistic level against the Barrowsiders, but they will have to be very wary of the threat posed by Paul Broderick and Darragh O'Brien and a likely midfield pairing of Sean Murphy and Sean Gannon.
Carlow are not in the same class as the teams Louth met in Division 2 this term, but the Reds will still have plenty to find to see off Turlough O'Brien's side. Don't be surprised to see them neck-and-neck on the home stretch, with Louth maybe just getting up by a short head.