The confidence gained from surviving the relegation dogfight in division two last year was tempered slightly for the Wee County by their failure to progress in the championship.
That All-Ireland qualifier match in Cusack Park against Westmeath also happens to be the location for the Reds first league match this year.
That was officially Peter Fitzpatrick’s last game at the helm of the Wee County, even though he was absent on the day due to illness.
With a new manager and renewed vigour instilled in the county this year, it’s unlikely that that defeat will have much bearing on Sunday’s match.
Still, this year doesn’t get any easier for the new man in charge. With Laois and Armagh descending from the top tier, another year of survival will be Aidan O’Rourke’s initial priority.
The O’Byrne Cup is always a useful exercise for any manager at the start of a new year, more so if it’s your first term in the hot seat.
O’Rourke cast his critical eye over 50 plus players in pre-season. His approach to the Dublin game and the weakened side he put out was an indication of his concern more for strategic objectives rather than quick gains.
Speaking after that match against the Dubs, the All-Ireland winner seemed fairly convinced that he knew what his 30 man panel for the league was going to be.
An undoubted inclusion will be Newtown Blues Andy McDonnell, the half forward was in blistering form during the O’Byrne Cup and he was the pivot upon which Louth’s defense turned to attack and vice versa.
For experience and scoring few can match Darren Clarke, the former Sylvesters star may be entering the twilight of his inter county career but there’s little doubt about his ability to continue at the top.
Keeping him injury free this year will be fine balancing act for O’Rourke.
Although he’ll miss the opening clash in Mullingar due to suspension, Clarke is relishing a good run in the league for the Reds this season.
“If we get a good start against Westmeath and then at home to Galway the following week I don’t see why we couldn’t look at promotion as a possibility.
“It’d be nice to go into the break after those first two matches on top with four points,” added the Ardee man.
In a challenge match last week against Queens, Clarke injured his left knee. The Louth forward is hopeful it’s nothing too serious.
“I missed a lot of last season with injury and I don’t want that to be the same again. I’m just waiting on a scan to come back to see what the story is.”
Paddy Keenan was used sparingly in the pre-season competition, due to a combination of a long season with St Pat’s and a reluctance to aggrevate some niggling injury concerns. His talents and abilities are without question though. Yet, the Pat’s man is taking a cautious approach to 2013.
“It’ll be a tough league and the teams should be fairly evenly matched”, revealed Keenan. “We’ll be taking each game as it comes as we’ve no right to be looking past anybody but we held up well last year so hopefully we’ve learned from that.”
Much has been made of the strength and conditioning training the Louth panel under took in pre-season; a significant increase on previous seasons.
An academic study of GAA training methods released last week seemed to call for a change in training methods, suggesting that high intensity as opposed to long endurance is a more successful approach.
Keenan has nothing but praise for O’Rourke’s modern training methods.
“In fairness to Aidan, he’s ratcheted it up a notch. Obviously, he’s seen first hand how teams like Kildare, Down and Armagh prepare and he’s bringing that experience to us. There’s a great back room team set up and the lads have responded well to them.”
Darren Clarke is also well aware of this switch to high intensity training. As he says - it’s the way things are going.
“If you look at the game against Dublin in Croke Park last year, it was clear that we were some way off their fitness levels, we’re hoping to change that this year.”
That report also stated that because of the amateur status of Gaelic players and their working arrangements, their ability to enjoy a decent recovery period after matches is significantly less than their professional counterparts.
“The truth is we’re playing for the love of the jersey”, states Clarke. “It’s an honour to put on that jersey and it’s a serious effort for everyone involved.”
One of the standout fixtures of the league occurs on the Saturday evening before St Patrick’s Day when O’Rourke’s side head across the border to take on neighours Armagh.
Naturally the clash holds a certain personal resonance for the Louth manager. Something Keenan knows full well.
“I suppose the Armagh game will be interesting too, for obvious reasons!”smirked the Pat’s man.
But the Dromintee manager’s focus will no doubt be on bringing those two points back across the border at all costs.
Another who looks likely to be a a part of O’Rourke’s plans is Cooley stopper Neil Gallagher. The former Dundalk FC keeper has been outstanding in the games he played in the O’Byrne Cup.
His display against Meath in Navan was a crucial reminder of how much Louth rely on the big man. His distribution has steadily improved and he’s always on the look out to start an attack from the depths of the defence.
Louth have four home games this year. Does Keenan see that as an advantage?
“Definitely. There’s not too many teams will fancy playing in Drogheda and, even from a travelling point of view, it’s a lot easier on the body having games at home, particularly against teams like Galway.”
The final and possibly most important game of the league is a home tie with Longford. Although Louth beat them well in the O’Byrne Cup several weeks ago, it is highly unlikely that manager Glenn Ryan will field such an inexperienced side on that day.
After the emotion of last season’s victory over Meath in Navan, it will take something extraordinary to match it in the Gaelic Grounds on that final day in April and many Wee County fans will be hoping it won’t come down to another do-or-die nail-biter this time around.
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