Min­nows seek­ing magic win­ning for­mula

Four Le­in­ster sides be­gin cam­paigns know­ing hon­ours aren’t even worth dream­ing about

Sunday Independent (Ireland) - Sport - - GAELIC GAMES - DER­MOT CROWE

FOUR of the par­tic­i­pants in this year’s Le­in­ster se­nior foot­ball cham­pi­onship should be whit­tled down to two af­ter to­day’s dou­ble-header in Port­laoise, which in­volves only one county that has won the prov­ince in liv­ing mem­ory, and an­other that has never won it, nor reached a fi­nal since the 1800s. There isn’t even the added edge of a bor­der ri­valry to spice up ei­ther con­test, with Of­faly and Wick­low pro­vid­ing a cur­tain-raiser to Car­low and Louth later in the af­ter­noon.

Ten years ago Mick O’Dwyer, in his sec­ond sea­son in charge, guided Wick­low to ar­guably their most fa­mous Le­in­ster win when they de­feated Kil­dare in Croke Park, where they had never won a cham­pi­onship match in the prov­ince be­fore.

The fol­low­ing sea­son Wick­low hit their peak, belt­ing out qual­i­fier wins over Fer­managh, Ca­van and, most mem­o­rably Down, a county that were close to win­ning the fol­low­ing year’s All-Ire­land.

Louth, the high­est placed league county of the four this year, had that epic run in 2010 too, de­nied in un­de­ni­ably cruel and out­ra­geous man­ner by a mix­ture of chi­canery and hap­less of­fi­ci­at­ing. For all that, only a year later they were floored in Le­in­ster by Car­low, with one of to­day’s no­table ab­sen­tees, Brendan Murphy, a cen­tral in­flu­ence.

The ar­rival of Pete McGrath hasn’t had an im­me­di­ately pos­i­tive im­pact in Louth. In the 2015 qual­i­fiers, the county suf­fered a 23-point de­feat to Tip­per­ary in Thurles when Colin Kelly was in his first year. Like McGrath, he had seen his team rel­e­gated in the spring, to Di­vi­sion 4. They seemed close to rock bot­tom but man­aged to gain suc­ces­sive pro­mo­tions un­der Kelly, then suf­fered this year’s im­me­di­ate de­mo­tion from Di­vi­sion 2 un­der McGrath. Af­ter los­ing to Tipp in 2015, Kelly ad­mit­ted:

“it was just an aw­ful per­for­mance — there’s not a lot you can say.”

In March, Louth lost in Thurles in the fifth round of the league by 14 points and it could have been by more than 20. Af­ter that game McGrath said that the two re­main­ing games were about pride and that los­ing all seven games would be hard to stom­ach for play­ers and man­age­ment. That is what hap­pened.

It left them with only six weeks to pre­pare for Car­low and some play­ers were soon to join those who had al­ready with­drawn from the squad. McGrath is hop­ing that the cham­pi­onship will in­spire some hith­erto un­seen magic in Louth and res­cue some­thing from the sea­son. Car­low is the only county up an up­ward tra­jec­tory of the four play­ing in Port­laoise to­day. The loss of Brendan Murphy is be­ing played down, and they have enough form and play­ers to win, but Louth have, in spite of their rel­e­ga­tion with a string of de­feats, some use­ful school­ing from play­ing against higher ranked op­po­si­tion.

In the Di­vi­sion 4 league fi­nal, against Laois in Croke Park, there was ev­i­dence of Car­low nerves, with a slow start and a poor day for their free-taker, Paul Brod­er­ick. In tense, and more im­por­tant, cir­cum­stances in Cor­ri­gan Park, Brod­er­ick (pic­tured), in fair­ness, nailed two tricky early frees from tight an­gles to set Car­low on the road to vic­tory and even­tual pro­mo­tion. They will be heav­ily re­ly­ing on more of that to­day.

Wick­low, who face Of­faly, are un­der the guid­ance of an­other Ker­ry­man now, John Evans, who led Laune Rangers to an All-Ire­land 22 years ago and has ca­reered through a se­ries of county jobs since. In O’Dwyer’s time Wick­low’s league form had lit­tle rel­e­vance to the cham­pi­onship and O’Dwyer showed lit­tle in­ter­est in it. Wick­low are com­ing off a spring in which they fin­ished bot­tom of the en­tire league with no win from six matches played.

To­day’s match has an added layer of in­ter­est in tee­ing up the win­ner up for a daunt­ing mis­sion against Dublin in two weeks’ time. Of­faly and Wick­low last met in the Le­in­ster cham­pi­onship 21 years ago when Of­faly won and mo­tored on to take the pro­vin­cial ti­tle.

The prov­ince is a much duller race­track now. A year be­fore Of­faly last raised the che­quered flag, Meath zoomed to an All-Ire­land turbo-charged by a cache of young play­ers. The year be­fore that Dublin had stut­tered over the line, end­ing a 12-year drought and pre­sag­ing a 16-year wait un­til the next tri­umph. The year af­ter Of­faly last won a Le­in­ster, Kil­dare broke through and nearly won an All-Ire­land. Le­in­ster can’t come any­where near pro­duc­ing that kind of va­ri­ety show 20 years on.

Of to­day’s four coun­ties, three will be in Di­vi­sion 3 next year and one in the bot­tom di­vi­sion. Other Le­in­ster coun­ties in Di­vi­sion 3 next year will be Laois, West­meath and Long­ford, while Wex­ford are go­ing to be in Di­vi­sion 4. Dublin is the only Le­in­ster team in Di­vi­sion 1, with Kil­dare and Meath in Di­vi­sion 2.

No county has ever won eight Le­in­ster se­nior foot­ball ti­tles in one decade be­fore. That is set to be bro­ken this sum­mer by Dublin. To­day will see four teams be­holden to the tra­di­tion of play­ing a pro­vin­cial cham­pi­onship they have taken part in for gen­er­a­tions. They will do what they have to and see where they are when the day is done.

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