Always a work in progress
The setbacks keep on coming as Louth seek to regain 2010 form
IN Louth, football prodigies don't grow on trees. It was 1989 when Colin Kelly sat his Leaving Cert and Frank Lynch, then Louth manager, asked his parents if it would be acceptable to include him on the county senior panel. They consented. He made his debut against Laois and was marked by Terry Ferguson and Kevin Foley in the next round against Meath on the day before he sat his first exam.
"I suppose the football came easier, if the truth be known," he says laconically. "It definitely came easier."
Cathal O'Hanlon was also a Leaving Cert student that season, making his first senior championship appearance against Laois but had less good fortune than Kelly. He broke a finger, ended up in hospital and, with his hand inactive, had to do his exams through a recorder.
All these years later, Louth football has lost one prodigy and gained another. Last autumn Ciarán Byrne, still 18, signed a two-year rookie contract with Carlton after impressing at a trial in Limerick two years before. The decision is immensely frustrating for Louth followers and manager Aidan O'Rourke who introduced Byrne to the side last year and saw him sign off with five points from play in their final qualifier match, a defeat by Kildare in Newbridge.
Now along comes Ryan Burns, a Leaving Cert student of tremendous potential, who has been drafted into O'Rourke's panel ahead of their opening championship match with Westmeath in Mullingar on Saturday evening next. Burns has already played for the county minors and under 21s this year and lines out for Hunterstown who won the Louth junior championship last year. He is sitting his Leaving Cert shortly.
Burns' arrival is more dramatic as he has not had any league experience to prepare him, unlike Kelly, O'Hanlon and Byrne. "Casey (Byrne's nickname) last year had game time under his belt, whereas for Ryan it is a totally new experience," says Kelly. "It is a whirlwind for him. He is straight into the lion's den against Westmeath."
The winners of Saturday's clash will go on to play Kildare in the quarter-finals. Kelly isn't ruling out Burns playing a part. "He is a capable young man. I would imagine if they have sent out for him it is not to gain him experience. I would expect to see him playing."
Byrne, too, comes from a small club, St Mochtas, who he helped avoid relegation from intermediate grade in his final match before leaving Ireland last year. Both Westmeath and Louth, who have met regularly in league and championship games, are coming off dispiriting spring campaigns, Westmeath finishing a brief spell in Division 1 with seven straight defeats and instant relegation, Louth managing two draws and five defeats as they finished bottom of Division 2.
Their fate was confirmed, as expected, with a defeat by Donegal in Ballyshannon. The 2012 All-Ireland champions demolished them in the first half, leading 0-13 to 1-1 at the interval, the Louth goal coming just before the break from Shane Lennon. Louth were 0-16 to 1-2 behind after 47 minutes when goals from Paddy Keenan and Brian White helped cut the gap to three points. But Donegal still had too much. Their day was made worse by a serious ankle injury that rules Colin Judge out of the Westmeath game.
Louth went up to Division 2 in 2011, the year after they enjoyed their best championship since 1960. The Leinster final heartbreak still haunts, but they recovered to get out of the third tier, finishing behind Westmeath, who they beat in the regulation meeting and again in the 2011 league final. They also enjoyed a narrow, tense win over Westmeath in the 2010 Leinster semi-final.
The promise of 2010 has not been fulfilled. A year after narrowly missing out on a Leinster championship, and earning promotion the following spring, Louth suffered a devastating championship defeat to Carlow, losing by a point in the Leinster quarter-finals. Carlow hadn't won a championship match in five years and were marooned in Division 4 of the league. Louth drew Meath in the first round of the qualifiers, and lost 2-8 to 5-8 in Breffni Park, Cian Ward scoring four goals. Season over.
In 2012, with Peter Fitzpatrick still at the helm, they played Westmeath in the preliminary round of the Leinster championship and won, 2-9 to 0-14. But they were no match for Dublin in the quarter-finals, losing 2-22 to 0-12. Again, the qualifier draw didn't offer much luck, requiring them to go to Mullingar and face Westmeath again. Mark Brennan and Darren Clarke were sent off in the first half and they still managed to get themselves level by the 61th minute before Westmeath sprinted clear and won by six.
Under Aidan O'Rourke, last year's championship began promisingly, beating Laois 1-16 to 1-6. But they fell to Wexford in the quarter-finals by a point at home and were back in the qualifiers. A home draw against Antrim in round one brought a six-point win, and then it was on to Newbridge where their season ended in a defeat by Kildare, 1-19 0-15. Byrne was their form attacker, scoring four first-half points as they led at the interval 0-10 0-8, and another after the interval. But Kildare had a final kick which saw off Louth's' challenge.
If there were encouraging signs in that summer effort – their best since 2010 – those were undermined by the loss of Byrne and a poor league. An excellent start against Armagh faded out and they were fortunate to hold on for a point and from there the team struggled to make an impact. They picked up another draw and lost their other five games, eventually being relegated along with Armagh to Division 3.
Colin Kelly feels they were too defensive and rigid. "I don't think this system suited them with the players we have. We have an All Star midfielder (Paddy Keenan) and you should let him get on with it and let's play with five and six forwards up the field. If you are playing Monaghan in Clones, fair enough you have to set yourself up but in other matches we should have a cut at those teams. I felt we didn't trust our ability at times during the league.
"Westmeath is not beyond Louth on Saturday. I think if you go through the other teams in Leinster, with the exception of Dublin, they are all fair game."
In 2011, Louth and Westmeath met twice in the league, Louth winning the first round by eight points in Drogheda and then defeating them again in the divisional final by five points, though Westmeath finished higher on the table.
"We are very wary of looking back on the year and seeing the same old sob stories for Louth football," Paddy Keenan said after losing to Dublin in 2010, soon after that fateful Leinster final. "We don't need that. It's a very young team. We have to build on this."
The building has been slow and painstaking. But they are not laying down the tools just yet.
Sunday Indo Sport