Louth senior hurling captain Gerard Smyth takes part in the Poc Fada. (Pic: Ciarán Culligan)
Gerard Smyth was “one of only about eight or nine” at Louth hurlers’ first meeting with their new management team, headed by Paul McCormack, last November.
“We were wondering: ‘What are we going to do?’”
But what seems like lightyears later, Smyth is part of a strong group of 30 players who are going at it thrice weekly at Darver in preparation for the Nicky Rackard Cup, which gets underway on Saturday, against Sligo in Dowdallshill.
A veteran of the Wee County set-up, Smyth is in his “14th or 15th season” with the team, but it’s his maiden year as captain.
Indeed, this is the first outfit he has ever been appointed leader of and so this weekend’s affair will see him head the Reds into the championship.
An extra-special occasion, you would imagine? But Smyth’s voice doesn’t even quiver. It’s as though the honour holds no extra, personal meaning or weight.
“I see it as having to take a coin toss and see which way we play. At the end of the day, it’s just a little letter after your name,” the Pearse Óg clubman tells the Democrat.
“It’ll make it extra special for those who know me, those who have watched me growing up, the likes of Damien Callan, Paul Callan, Aidan Kerrigan - God, rest his soul - and Gerry Dunne.
“All these boys who taught me growing up are getting to see me captain the Louth senior team, something they probably thought I could have done for years, but just never got the opportunity.
“For myself, it’s no extra honour, I’ll still be doing the same job. I’ll still be taking the same kind of leadership role, because I’m one of the older lads on the team.”
Relegation was narrowly avoided in Division 3A of the hurling league during the spring - a result which Smyth concedes the Reds were content with, before they embarked upon 10 weeks of championship preparation, in which time they faced Armagh, Monaghan and Meath’s Kildalkey.
It has been a positive year thus far, he insists, with silverware having come in the form of a Kehoe Shield triumph.
“The Kehoe Shield was a nice thing to win, but it’s not something you’re going to hang your hat on at the end of the year,” he adds.
So that makes the Sligo tussle - the first encounter of the sides since the epic 2016 Lory Meagher Cup final at Croke Park, which Louth came back to win - all the more important, with away games against Tyrone and Mayo to come.
Players’ touch and general skillsets have gained a boost from their intensive training programme, but with such a young panel, the skipper acknowledges that maintenance of their Rackard Cup status is the primary objective.
“It takes a long time for a team to learn management’s gameplan and style. You’re not going to have it in six months.
“It’ll even be hard to see it in this year’s championship, it’ll be more next year’s league where you’ll see the full implementation of it, but it’s the fact that we’re getting to the nuts and bolts of it now; it’s coming off in certain parts of the game.
“But with the group we’ve been drawn in, there’s no need to believe that we can’t make the top two and in a semi-final, then, anything can happen.”
The Minogues, Cathal and Brian, are aiming to be fit for Sligo’s visit, while Ronan Byrne has rejoined the set-up as a goalkeeper and Mark Wallace is back from injury. Shane Callan, though, is ruled out with the knock he received against Tyrone in the National League.
Otherwise, it’s going to be a case of ‘as you were’ from the spring, but better.
In the case of Knockbridge’s Liam Molloy, Smyth says he’s “never seen anyone progress as much in six months”, while he remarks that Darren Geoghegan of Naomh Moninne is “starting to throw his weight around more”.
So all seems well ahead of Louth’s summer season - especially when you consider the turnout on night one...