LOUTH fans should be forgiven if they feel a sense of dread that the summer is upon us. Because just as must GAA die-hards long for the advent of the championship and revel in the anticipation of what it will bring, Louth have -- for the past two years anyway -- flopped come big show time.
It wasn't always so, however. Back in the heady days of 2007, the Wee County men made the last 12 of the All-Ireland series and came within a couple of points of Cork and a quarter-final berth.
But in both of the seasons since then, the passing of the months has coincided with a sustained downturn in their fortunes. Progressive league campaigns in 2008 and '09 (albeit ones in which promotion were narrowly missed) gave way to listless championship attempts, with just a single victory -- a two-points defeat of Carlow -- to show for two full summer campaigns.
Last year, they won the O'Byrne Cup at their ease, beating DCU by seven points in the final, yet that February triumph was the high watermark in the year. Supporters of Louth must have had mixed emotions then, when their team made the decider again this year only to lose to DCU.
"We didn't get going at all in the championship last year," admits captain Paddy Keenan. "We were very disappointed with how we played in the championship the last couple of years.
"We were as well prepared as anyone. It's just on the day, we didn't play well.
"We had a good enough champion-ship run in 2007. We nearly beat Cork in the last 12. After that, we never seemed to perform in the championship at all. There's not one thing. There's a few different reasons but the players on the day have to take responsibility. We didn't do it. But I can't put my finger on the reason."
Duly, manager Eamon McEneaney paid the price and Peter Fitzpatrick was brought in and while Keenan revealed that the new man hasn't changed a whole lot in terms of training, he has added a freshness and vibrancy to the whole thing.
Keenan himself is slightly lucky to be available for selection tomorrow after his flight from Portugal, where he was attending a wedding, was cancelled due to the volcanic plume which is hijacking European travel just now.
"There was a wee bit of panic," he admits but, thankfully, the county board made alternative arrangements and he only missed one night of training.
Keenan should be pivotal to Louth's chances. He is one of the most experienced, consistent and -- in spite of his deep positioning -- prolific players on the squad. But in JP Rooney, Darren Clarke and Shane Lennon, Louth have more firepower than tomorrow's opponent, Longford.
Particularly if Glenn Ryan's men have to do without their two most noteworthy forwards, Brian Kavanagh and Paul Barden. Both will undergo late fitness tests and despite being named in the full-forward line, it seems unlikely that either will be operating at full pelt.
A clash with Kildare awaits but Keenan is totally cautious. "We've done nothing in the last few years in Leinster so we've no right to be looking beyond Longford," he says. "We have done badly in Leinster recently and Sunday is all that matters."
ODDS: Louth 4/6, Draw 15/2, Longford 6/4
LONGFORD: D Sheridan; D Brady, D Masterson, S Hannon; S Mulligan, E Williams, P Foy; A O'Connor, B Gilleran; P Dowd, F McGee, K Mulligan; D Reilly, B Kavanagh, P Barden.
LOUTH: N Gallagher; E McAuley, D Finnegan, R Greene; R Finnegan, M Fanning, J O'Brien; P Keenan, B White; A McDonnell, M Brennan, A Reid; C Judge, S Lennon, JP Rooney.