H AVING lost a Leinster final in scenes reminiscent of Shakespearean tragedy and fainted at the smell of victory in the O'Byrne Cup, Louth's season of reckoning begins in earnest at Drogheda this afternoon. Nothing more glamorous than a home match against Westmeath, a county sliding down the rankings in recent years. But the world is watching to see if Louth will drive on and win matches they are now expected to.
Last summer they earned abundant sympathy, a great deal of admiration but no silverware. And while they were quick to downplay the similarities between Meath's grand larceny and Kildare's two-goal injury-time heist a week ago, there are enough troubling likenesses to keep fresh the question of Louth's readiness for high office. They need to put a winning run together and lift themselves out of Division 3 ahead of another tilt at winning a Leinster championship, where they have been helped by a favourable draw.
Those are the goals and they'll feel more prepared for the league now than they were 12 months ago. The experience and confidence gained from their championship performances are bound to help and the failures of last spring forced changes in the management set-up which yielded the desired results. Peter McDonnell's arrival from Armagh is regarded as a significant influence on Louth's preparations and tactical improvement. He has since been given the official position of selector but as selectors go he has considerable influence.
This has been with the blessing of Peter Fitzpatrick, the dapper manager and front man, who had a good track record of his own and a flair for physical fitness and motivating teams. During a pre-championship bonding trip to Donegal, he was sufficiently moved by a Brian McEniff team talk that he felt the 1992 All-Ireland winning manager should come on board as well. McEniff was in the dressing room for the championship matches and he was one of those who spoke to the devastated players after the Leinster final. It is not known if he will be part of Louth's plans later in the year.
Even at that stage, last May, McEniff says he was impressed with what he saw. "I saw them in Bundoran and they were very comfortable on the ball, very good strikers. And very good natural forwards. They have more than just six forwards, they've about eight or nine of a very high standard. But also they were a very mannerly bunch of lads, they were not messing, they were in their official gear and there was a discipline among them that was very impressive. Those things stood out in my mind."
The discipline to defend good leads is something that has been harder to master. They led by eight against Kildare last Sunday at one stage late in the first half. After half-time they scored two points, led by seven, and failed to register again. There is no question of the team's ability in full flow. But there are concerns that exist over their consistency and concentration. And they have also had to reconstruct their defence, the weakest sector, which lost John O'Brien and Mick Fanning to emigration.
A good deal of Louth's learning will be upstairs, between the ears. "The thing that disappointed me a little," says the former Louth manager Paddy Clarke, "was that their motivation for winning the O'Byrne Cup final was they didn't want to lose three finals in a row; that is negative motivation -- you are thinking of the two you have lost." They lost last year's O'Byrne Cup final to DCU.
"I think if they get a win on Sunday it can be the same as the (2010 Leinster championship) win over Kildare," states Clarke. "If they were to lose on Sunday, it could be the opposite, literally; I won't say you are looking at relegation but it would be a big blow. It's a confidence team and a confidence county."
Last Sunday's match bought out the best and worst in Louth. A Kildare team, whose sleek physical conditioning is much remarked upon, played second fiddle for 40 minutes and then started to eat into Louth's lead and test their resilience. "There is no point denying it, we fell asleep in the last minute of the first half and the last two minutes of the second half," says Shane Lennon, pinpointing the concession of goals. "But the National League is what we targeted at the start of the year."
Lennon had looked destined for Australia along with the departed Brian White, Fanning and O'Brien, but secured a job as a coaching officer. He has also been saddled with the free-taking. White's long range will be missed as much as his accuracy. "I struggled in a couple of games," admits Lennon, "so I just did a bit of added work myself. When you are playing with the club you kick them with your eyes closed but there is a bit more pressure at inter-county. Thankfully, I nailed them all the last day. Hopefully I can keep that going for the National League."
White's absence has left room for Ronan Carroll to return to the side after injury, having missed most of last year, and the recall of Gerard Hoey, a young and talented corner-back, is another welcome development. The most exciting prospect has been Derek Maguire, scorer of an audacious goal against Kildare, and a player with lots of pace and good kicking and finishing skills.
Shoring up the defence may be the key, however, to Louth's future well-being. Aaron Hoey, vastly experienced, is filling the full-back position and while he did well against Kildare, he may not be the long-term answer. Mick Finnegan has moved from full-back to centre in the absence of Fanning. Fitzpatrick's son, Stephen, has been given a starting place at left half-back today.
"Probably the biggest concern in Louth, if I am being honest, is full-back," says former county player Colin Kelly. "I think Aaron Hoey has played every position bar goals, and he is a very good footballer, reader of the game and I have great respect for him, but he is getting on in years. You look at the way football is played at the minute and you say 'has he got the pace?'"
Louth's element of surprise is certainly gone. They struggled to see off Westmeath after disposing of Kildare in flamboyant fashion last summer, looking more at ease when least was expected of them. Paddy Clarke believes that Kildare took Louth a little for granted last year. "Kildare's warm-up was absolutely flat, dead, there was no jizz. I made the comment on the local radio station, if Louth play as they warm up, and Kildare do the same, Louth are in with a chance. Louth are like the Irish rugby team; the games they are expected to win they lose, and the games they are expected to lose they win. One great performance followed by a poor performance."
Peter Fitzpatrick's decision to enter politics will also fuel debate and exercise opinion in Louth. Fitzpatrick is a regional manager often on the road and has a family to look after, so he had already learned to multi-task, but diving into politics as a novice means he can't be sure of the depths involved or the time required. Training and match time is more easily calibrated. How much it impinges on the other hours he would have spent thinking about football and planning ahead is not so easily judged.
"I have a fantastic backroom team," he says. "We mainly train on Tuesdays and Thursdays and the lads do gym work and other work on their own on Monday, Wednesday and Friday, so we have a programme for the whole week. And we are playing a game on a Sunday so it is fairly well structured."
He "officially started" his new life in politics on Friday week last and has spent much of the days since campaigning -- "from eight in the morning to maybe 10-11 at night time. I have only three and a half weeks to cover the whole of the area. I stop campaigning from 7.0pm until about a quarter past nine on Tuesday and Thursday so I can train the team. No canvassing on Sunday."
Fitzpatrick stresses that it will not place too much of a burden on his Louth football commitments. "I live in Dundalk, we train in Darver which is 10 kilometres from my house. I can be there in less than ten minutes. No, that won't bother me at all. I love the GAA; that is my adrenaline, that's what keeps me going."
Yesterday he had a three-hour meeting in the morning and then more canvassing in Blackrock in the afternoon. Today he will switch off. "Our big aim is to get out of Division 3. I think we have a good steady team, and I thought we played very well against Kildare last week."
As for those two injury-time goals, he remains philosophical. "We only needed one more point and the game was won. It's all about taking the opportunities and that is something we're learning at the moment. We've analysed the game. I feel our guys have come a long way. I remember Louth going to Croke Park and it was just a day trip. Now they feel they can win and should win. But Division 3 is a very tough division. Two home games to start with, it's important to win those."