'It has been a long wait so we need to make it count' - Foley
Carlow footballers used to think that mid-July and the second-half the All-Ireland championships wasn't their time. Their exit papers had always been served by then so they watched in envy from afar as others enjoyed the big days.
Not this year. They will play their fifth championship game of the season against Monaghan on Saturday, seeking a win that would take them into the last 12 in the All-Ireland race for the first time in the 16-year history of the qualifiers.
Having the game in Netwatch Cullen Park in front of the Sky Sports cameras has added to the excitement in a county whose last major championship achievement was winning the Leinster title in 1944.
"These are the days you always think about. We've waited a long time to get to this level and we've got to make it count," said team captain Darragh Foley.
A sales rep with Largo Foods he covers Kildare and west Dublin, areas immersed in the build-up to the Leinster final.
He is used to seeing the Lilywhite and blue flags fluttering in the summer breeze and feels a huge sense of pride that Carlow's distinctive red, green and yellow is now festooned all over his home county.
"There's a different feel around the place his year. Youngsters are wearing the Carlow jersey, they want to get them signed and they love the whole atmosphere. We just hope we can keep it going for them and for ourselves," said Foley.
Victories over Wexford (Leinster first round), London and Leitrim (qualifiers) might look like a modest haul but it's not for Carlow, who often had only two championship games in a season.
The second one was frequently played with a weakened team, following withdrawals from the squad for the qualifiers as players re-arranged their summer plans.
That's all changed this year. Having already done well in Division 4 with a third-place finish, Carlow's gritty performance against Dublin in the Leinster quarter-final reinforced the squad's view that more progress could be made if everyone continued to apply themselves.
Carlow lost to Dublin by 12 points (0-19 to 0-7) but were only four points behind when midfielder Brendan Murphy was shown a red card, after receiving a second yellow, in the 48th minute. At the same stage in the semi-final, Dublin led Westmeath by 16 points, en route to a 31-point win.
Carlow coped much better than Westmeath with Dublin's powerful onslaught and are now hoping that the experience gained there will empower them to further improve against another Division 1 side.
According to Foley, a key difference between their clash with Dublin and the earlier games lay in the intensity and physicality.
"We would be used to playing teams with a different level of physicality. Dublin had it everywhere," said Foley.
"The pace at which they did things was new to us too but we coped well for a long time. You don't get a bigger test than playing Dublin and it will stand to us."
Carlow have been building slowly in recent years under Turlough O'Brien's management set-up, which Foley says has been a significant component in the upswing.
"We're a small county so we have to make the most of what we have all the time. But then Monaghan is a small county too and look at what they have achieved. They have shown what can be done if everyone works together and the hard work is put in," said Foley.
Only Leitrim and Longford have smaller populations than Carlow (57,000), who are just behind Monaghan (61,000).
Foley (26), who made his championship debut in 2010, remembers as a youngster going to watch Carlow play Monaghan in the league and contrasts how the counties' fortunes fluctuated afterwards.
Still, it's all about the future and now Carlow are getting a second chance in six weeks to test themselves against top opposition, an occasion they will relish.
"We respect Monaghan but we'll have a go. It's very important to settle in quickly and get ourselves well set up.
"We know that no one is giving us a chance but we don't see it that way. We want to get the most from ourselves and see where it takes us," Foley explained.
Like many other players in lower-ranked counties, he is opposed to an All-Ireland 'B' championship, which has been mooted as part of a major overhaul.
"It wouldn't appeal to me. If you're playing in a 'B' championship you're seen as a lesser player.
"We'd never get a chance in a 'B' championship like we're getting on Saturday - playing a Division 1 team in a Round 3 qualifier at home before Sky TV cameras. That's where you want to be."
Carlow's progress has resulted in a major surge of interest among all ages across the county. Cúl Camp co-ordinator Brendan Hayden reports a sizeable increase in numbers, which will pass the 2,000 mark. "When the county teams are going well, the youngsters will follow," he said.
County secretary Michael Doran said that a clear sign of changed times in Carlow was in the jerseys being worn by youngsters.
"You used to have a lot of English soccer club jerseys but the Carlow colours are winning this summer. It's good to see.
"The footballers are going great but we won't forget the hurlers either. They won the Christy Ring Cup and were very unlucky to lose to Laois in the All-Ireland qualifiers. Things are moving nicely in Carlow at the moment," he said.
Beating Monaghan - a feat achieved by Longford in Clones in last year's qualifiers - would send their stock soaring even higher.
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