Tipp defeat was worst day I had in football, admits Louth boss Kelly
There were still 25 minutes left on the clock in Thurles but on the sideline Colin Kelly was already feeling flush with embarrassment.
His Louth team were well on their way to one of the biggest defeats of the championship summer, Tipperary showing no mercy in their second round qualifier on the way to a 23-point win on the second Saturday of last July.
"To stand there with 25 minutes to go and really feel embarrassed by it," Kelly recalls. "It's something that you never want to go through again."
He'd had good days in a Louth jersey. And nearly days too. A late smash and grab in Drogheda in 1991 that brought Mick O'Dwyer's Kildare honeymoon crashing down stands out.
But for a cruel rebound that Joe McNally read quickest, they'd have taken out All-Ireland champions Dublin in Navan in 1996. There was a spell mixing it with the big boys in Division 1, a Division 2 title won in Croke Park, enough to mark it down as a decent time to be a Louth footballer.
But now this.
"Walking out of that stadium was probably the worst day I've ever had. As a footballer, a mentor or a supporter," he recalled.
In Kelly's eyes it was "broken". He spoke of two-tier championships and the difficulty of trying to entice new players into such a testing atmosphere. In 2015 there had been nine debutants, the turnover of players quite extreme. The team that had taken them to a first Leinster final in 50 years just five years earlier was fragmented to the point of being unrecognisable.
"We had no pre-season, we were limping along from game to game. We were trying to implement game-plans that the players hadn't the fitness levels to carry out. The desire from some of players probably wasn't what it should have been."
Paddy Keenan's retirement hit them hardest, the dynamic midfielder signing off in the months prior to Kelly's appointment. If anything was going to eat into morale, it was this. But a spring in Division 4 has given them shelter from the storm.
They're back, maybe not entirely new but at least improved a little. The breathing space the basement afforded them has given time to restock.
Claiming a Division 4 title has changed the mood music around the county, Kelly senses.
"It was huge," he says of last month's Division 4 win. "There was a negativity about the county. It wasn't nice being a Louth player. That has changed in some fashion.
"In no small way they have turned around, albeit in small steps. It's progression, hopefully back to where we were four or five years ago, a strong Division 2 team contesting provincial finals."
Provincial finals? Don't mention the war. Kelly wonders if the personnel shift of recent years had its source in some giving up a little ahead of schedule because of 2010.
"You're sick at times answering questions about the fallout. Probably the biggest fallout was that some of the more senior players became disillusioned, eventually it petered out.
"A lot of them had given huge service and they drifted. People spoke about us that we were leaderless. It's not that I feel we were leaderless, it's just the fellas that were left had never had to assume a role as leaders before. It was always Paddy Keenan, Shane Lennon, John O'Brien, that type of player, Dessie Finnegan, strong characters, leaders in the dressing room.
"All of a sudden the guys that are left there, the likes of Adrian Reid, Derek Maguire, Declan Byrne, Colm Judge had to assume the mantle. This year they proved to be very strong characters and good in the dressing room for the younger fellas.
"I was probably naive to the fact that (with 2010) I thought, 'Listen let's get on and deal with this' but the initial hurt has probably taken longer to go, more so because of the way the county was treated.
"You can't blame Meath, Louth. As a whole I feel the GAA handled it bad. It was just a disaster. We have regrouped, it has taken a while. We have a bunch of players who are really ambitious.
"There are going to be mistakes, there are going to be games where it's not going to happen. But overall they have a tendency to work hard and try to the end and that's a trait Louth teams probably haven't had in the past."
They meet Carlow later today in the opening round mindful of the loss to the same opponents in 2011. In a province that contains Dublin, they simply can't afford to think too big but in a county with two of the biggest provincial towns in the country Kelly still thinks they can punch hard.
"Even when we were sitting down to reassess our goals after the league, it would have been naive of me to speak to the players about the possibility of winning Leinster. I'm not saying Dublin can't be beaten but the possibility of them losing?
"It's outrageous to think any different.
"There are other things that can be achieved.
"The All-Ireland series, teams from lower divisions have got to the last eight, the last four in the past.
"With the right momentum, the right work ethic, the right bit of luck in the draw, you could go deep into the summer."