The local championship is well underway. Up and down the county most weekends are jam packed with games in all three grades right now.
No doubt at most matches there’s someone watching with a keen interest. Someone involved in preparations for 2014. Someone who will report back to a certain Mr Aidan O’Rourke and let him know what he has seen and more importantly, who he has seen.
It’s hard to think that the homework for those chilly February afternoons in the National League next year begins during these humid sun-soaked days of July and August.
But before you look forward it’s always good to review and analyse the previous.
2013 saw Louth manager Aidan O’Rourke don the intercounty bainisteoirs bib for the very first time. In the years beforehand he cut his managerial teeth in the backrooms of both Kildare and Down.
Both those county’s have a far more illustrious recent history than Louth. And without doubt his service to each county would have served him well as he made his first step onto the managerial ladder.
As a hard-running half back with the 2002 All Ireland winning Armagh team O’Rourke also knows what winning the Sam Maguire is like, few Louth managers have had that particular accolade in their back pockets.
In October 2012 he arrived at The Darver Centre of Excellence, his intentions from the off were clear – bring the Louth team up to a level of fitness and conditioning so they could compete effectively at the top level of the national game.
He was quick to laud the strength in depth within the county, but bemoaned the lack of confidence that seemed to hinder their progress. As much as changing the physical set up, O’Rourke knew that something needed to change in the head as well.
The noises emanating from those early training sessions in the gym were of tough and gruelling engagements overseen by former Ireland Rugby strength and conditioning coach Mike McGurn.
But as tough as they were the collective voice from the players was one of enthusiastic approval for the early pre-season work.
In January this year O’Rourke got his first taste of competitive action in the season curtain-raising O’Byrne Cup. Clearly winning the competition was a secondary concern. Louth rotated a vast number of players in those matches.
Ultimately Dublin knocked The Reds out in Drogheda in the semi final, but it was little to be concerned about. The job of whittling a panel down for the National League was the real intention.
But even the national league was not the primary focus for O’Rourke. Championship football was. For a county like Louth, the national league is an important addition to the calendar. A county starved of success in the championship relies on victories in the league to boost morale and belief.
The Armagh man needed to be careful that he didn’t underestimate this mentality amongst Wee County fans.
Cusack Park, February 3.
Recent rivals Westmeath beckoned on that first Sunday of the league. For 35 minutes Louth looked simply unplayable. They tore into the home side and could have had the game out of sight at half time. Westmeath even lost a player to a red card. It looked promising. But it ended with defeat. The Midlanders showed remarkable character and fought back for the win.
They would eventually go on to gain promotion to the top flight with ease.
The delayed second match with the Tribesmen in Galway again saw Louth show great promise early on, but this time they saw the game out, winning 0-17 to 0-11. Spirits were beginning to soar again.
An impressive draw down in Portlaoise could have been even better had Justin McNulty’s side not surged back in the last fifteen minutes. Still Louth looked free flowing and confident in the early passages of play that Saturday evening.
A deeply disappointing home defeat to this year’s bogey team Wexford was offset by a stunning victory over O’Rourke’s native Armagh in the following round.
Derry came and eased past Louth in the penultimate round as they marched on to promotion themselves. That left a date with Longford on the last day. Although relegation was still an outside prospect, The Wee County comfortably sent the O’Farrell County packing.
League done. Status maintained.
On to the more appetising prospect of the Leinster Championship please.
SEE NEXT WEEK FOR PART TWO