It’s back to Navan for the U21’s tonight (Tuesday). In early April last year they faced a Ciaran Kilkenny led Dublin side in the Leinster U21 Championship Final. On that cold evening the Wee County were thoroughly dismantled by the Big Smoke.
That game was all but dead at half time and the Dubs subsequently went on to lift the All Ireland title later that year, beating Roscommon with seven points to spare.
This year as they run out onto the pitch in Pairc Tailteann, for many of the survivors from that squad it will be hard to banish the thoughts of that bitterly disappointing evening.
But for the likes of Dreadnots’ Anthony Willliams and Dermot Campbell that defeat will have provided them with invaluable experience for this year’s assault on the Leinster title. Experience that could hopefully bring them one step further in 2013.
Their first round opponents, Meath, have pedigree at underage level though. At minor level over the last few years they’ve been one of the top teams in Ireland. It’s a big ask on day one for David Reilly’s charges. Last year they had that spectacularly easy fixture against Kilkenny, which went down in lore for the ridiculous scoreline (The Reds won by a staggering fifty point margin).
But the ex-Stabannon Parnells and Louth midfielder knows that it can be difficult to get a panel together for such an important match.
“It’s a very short time frame involved. Lads are playing college football in January and then they’re back at their clubs as well. But that’s the same for all counties, so it’s just something you have to work with”, explained Reilly.
“We have lads in college in Cork and Galway, so you have to be fair. There’s so much talk of player welfare and burn out, so you need to get the balance right.”
Reilly will be joined on the sideline this year by his former county teammates Ollie McDonnell and Stephen Melia.
The new boss has previous form when it comes to successful underage teams. He led St Brides to their first ever Louth Minor victory two years ago and also had successful spells managing the Louth U16 and U17 teams. He is delighted to have Melia and mcDonnell on board.
“Both those lads have a wealth of experience. Ollie is the younger of the two and he was one of the most dynamic players to ever pull on a Louth jersey and Stephen brings so much to the table as well.”
There are a few injury concerns among last year’s players. Peter Kirwan is struck down with Glandular Fever and will not feature tonight. David Reilly is hopeful he might return soon enough.
“Peter is mad keen to get out playing, but with Glandular fever you need to rest and not over-exert yourself, so he’s listening to the doctor about what he needs to do.”
Of the team that started last year’s Leinster Final against Dublin, five will be included in the panel for the Meath game. However Michael McKeown of Mattock Rangers looks likely to miss out due to a knock he’s been carrying, according to the U21 boss.
If the Royals are overcome Louth will encounter Kildare in the next round. It doesn’t get any easier for the Reds.
“Sure it doesn’t get any easier, but this is what you want though. You want to play the big teams. It will be a good measure for us and where we are”, added Reilly.
The two main words Reilly keeps returning to are ‘confidence’ and ‘momentum’, both are even more vital at U21 level, due to the short time frame involved in getting a team ready for competitive action.
“U21 is a different grade. A win can do a lot for confidence. Last year Louth beat the more fancied sides like Longford and Offaly, after not being given much hope at the start. We’re in a similar situation this year. We’ve played a few challenge matches but a win can get the momentum going.”
Initially with just two years to manage the Reds, the Stabannon legend knows there’s only a certain amount he can do.
“Every year you get a bit wiser. Everyone makes mistakes. There’s no long term masterplan. You’re limited to a certain extent with what you can do, but you just look forward to bringing these lads on as much as possible.”