You have got to be positive and we are - O'Brien
Carlow target best league finish since mid-’80s
There's a big division in Carlow these days but it's so positive that football manager Turlough O'Brien is happy to allow it gather momentum.
Inside the camp, it's all about efficiency and concentration as Carlow attempt to escape from Division 4, while outside there's a sense of giddy excitement among supporters at the prospect of watching their team reach football's third tier for the first time since 1984.
O'Brien provides a bridge between the two, calmly presiding over Carlow's best run for a long time, while also eager to share in the wider impact of the progress.
"This is great for morale and self-esteem. Our hurlers are going very well too so there's a really good feeling around the county. We don't know where it will take us, but it's important to go with it when it's there," he said.
Weather permitting - which is now looking increasingly unlikely - Carlow's footballers will head into Netwatch Cullen Park on Saturday evening seeking their fifth successive win in Division 4.
Level on points (eight each) with Laois and one ahead of Antrim, both of whom they still have to play, they must first negotiate the Wicklow challenge.
Wicklow have made a surprisingly low-key start, taking two of a possible eight points, but nothing will motivate them more than a clash with their promotion-seeking neighbours.
"I'm sure John Evans will have a few tricks up his sleeve. Both Carlow and Wicklow would always believe they can win, however well the others are going," reasoned O'Brien.
In a football world where most of the attention is invariably directed towards the successful counties, the Carlow story provides an interesting reminder that not everything revolves around Dublin, Kerry, Mayo, Tyrone etc.
They finished third in Division 4 last year, having slipped up against London and Leitrim in games they would have been expected to win, before turning in a battling performance against Dublin in the Leinster championship. They later reached Round 3 of the All-Ireland qualifiers for the first time, losing by five points to Monaghan after matching them right up to the closing minutes.
A progressive year set Carlow up among the favourites for promotion to Division 3 this year, a status which they have relished.
"People were saying that it would add to the pressure on us and that we might not react well. We saw it differently. We were being mentioned as promotion contenders for a good reason so why should it have anything other than a positive impact on us?
"The Dublins and Kerrys start every year expecting to win so why should we be any different in Division 4? We went into the league with the confidence which last year gave us. We were positive about what lay ahead, rather than having any fears.
"We certainly weren't being cocky or anything like that but we didn't doubt ourselves either. You've got to be positive," said O'Brien.
He believes it's an attitude every team should have but says it isn't always easy due to the negativity that's often tossed in their direction.
Carlow experienced it after last year's clash with Dublin, where their defensive structure drew criticism.
His view is that he set the team up with the intention of being as competitive as possible, which worked well until Brendan Murphy was sent off on a second yellow card in the third quarter.
"We came out of the Dublin game feeling confident enough to have a real go at the qualifiers, which we did.
"Last summer left us with valuable experience in the bank for this year. It's easy be negative about counties like Carlow but it achieves nothing. And it doesn't tell the true story either.
"There's a huge amount of great work going on. Here in Carlow, we have a fantastic Centre of Excellence in Fenagh and we're now sponsored by IT Carlow, which gives us access to all the expertise there," he said.
O'Brien, who is in his fourth season as manager, gets annoyed when he hears grim predictions that players from so-called weaker counties will not maintain their commitment into the future because there's no clear pathway towards success.
"Of course, you will get some players who won't make themselves available for one reason or another but it's not all gloom and doom. Here in Carlow, for instance, we have several players who have given years of commitment, coming back every season to try again. Playing for Carlow is a big thing in their lives.
"We have a very strong panel at present - with younger players coming through and challenging for places.
"I don't know where the rest of the year will take us but, whatever happens, Carlow football is going very much in the right direction," he said.
The calls for the introduction of a second-tier championship may be growing louder but they will make no impression on O'Brien, who is opposed to the idea.
"Do we want two leagues in the same year? We're playing teams at our own level now but players want to test themselves against the stronger teams in the championship. It did us a lot of good last year.
"People should ask counties in Divisions 3 and 4 what they want rather than make assumptions on their behalf," he said.
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