It’s fair to say the streets of Ardee might be fairly empty come Sunday afternoon. If the entire supporter bases of Ardee St Marys and John Mitchels encamping in Croke Park isn’t enough, there’s seven local Ardee players involved in the Louth Minor panel – so friends and extended families will also be converging on GAA HQ too, no doubt.
Needless to say, it’s not every day Louth get to Croker – and rarely so in a final. What makes tomorrow particularly special in these parts is the big local involvement. There’s six St Marys players in the 30 man panel for the Leinster Minor Championship showpiece, with forward John Gallagher of the Mitchels completing the compliment.
The run to the final has captured the imaginations of GAA supporters across Ardee, Mid-Louth and the county as a whole. Last year’s finalists Laois were dispatched in the qualifying round before Offaly and Wexford followed suit in the quarter-finals and last four respectively. When the campaign got underway in April, no one on the outside considered Louth capable of making much of a splash at minor level.
Given Louth’s disappointing league outing – losing all three games in their group – a Croke Park appearance three months later seemed unlikely. But on the inside, under Kierans astute leadership, belief has never wavered. When we sat down with the Marys contingent – Conor Gillespie, Shane Matthews, Ciaran Keenan, Alan McGauley, Liam Jackson and Philip Trainor – feelings ahead of Sunday ranged from “excited” and “buzzing” to “nervous as well.”
It’s just 11 days since Louth’s stunning 4-10 to 2-15 win over Wexford sealed their final place and the players admit that the time since that game has flown by. Time, it seems, really does fly when you’re having fun. “It still really hasn’t sunk in yet,” Gillespie says. “It’s not really going to sink in until we’re right there.”
The panel had all too much time to look ahead to the semi-final – too much time as it happens – as due to the Leaving Cert, there was a six-and-a-half week gap in between the victories over Offaly and Wexford. No wonder 11 days seem like an instant. With some of the panel, including Marys man Trainor, tackling their exams the other players were left to a lot of gym work and not a lot of football.
“We went to the gym for the two weeks when they were doing the Leaving and just did Strength and Conditioning,” Keenan told us. “It was a bit annoying with no games, “Gillespie adds. “While they are doing exams, we have low numbers but we still have to get out and train.”
The big gap in time between matches didn’t appear to unduly affect the Louth Minors in their semi-final at Wexford Park. Like in their previous outings this year, they did it the hard way. Just like the Offaly match in Drogheda, the team in red were at one point trailing by seven points before coming back to win in dramatic fashion.
Drama just goes with the territory at this stage. Kierans’ youngsters needed extra-time to beat Laois in Portlaoise before an injury time Gallagher score earned them a one point win over Offaly – despite going down 1-05 to 0-01 in the early stages. Another slow start followed against Wexford but two goals from Gillespie saw Louth edge in front and hang on at the death.
So what gives this young Louth outfit the edge? “It’s character,” Trainor says. “The two games where we went seven points down, there was no point where I thought we were going to be beat. I was fully confident we were going to win. It’s just the mentality. There’s no standout players, there’s no one man that runs the show – no superstar.”
Keenan agrees. “We never panic. We play as a team, we’re not individuals,” he tells us.
Gillespie, who netted 2-02 as Louth overcame Wexford in front of a bumper travelling contingent of Louth supporters in the south east, says his team have a resilience that marks them out as serious contenders for the Dubs on Sunday. Whilst they don’t want to put themselves in difficult situations, they back themselves to bounce back should they need to.
“We’re all willing to fight for eachother as well. That’s the most important thing – and mentality,” he says. “It seems to be the way. I feel from 1-15 and the rest of panel too probably, the character of the team is unbelievable. The never die attitude is there throughout the team.
“We said before the whistle blew against Wexford that we were going to start strong and get a few early scores on the board, unlike Offaly. Still, the mentality was there to hold on, dig deep and when chances come, take them well.”
Half back Trainor believes that the turning point in Louth’s season didn’t come in league or even Championship action. Instead, it emerged from a more inauspicious moment – a challenge match against Armagh in Silverbridge.
“We played Armagh down in Silverbridge and I think that was the turning point,” he said. “We were after playing them a few weeks earlier in Darver. We ended up beating them but it was a rotten night and they played their second string. But we went to Silverbridge and we played on a massive pitch – it was huge – and that was when everything just clicked.”
Louth Minors – How They Got There
- Qualifier – Laois 0-14 Louth 2-11
- Quarter-Final – Louth 0-15 Offaly 1-11
- Semi-Final – Wexford 2-15 Louth 4-10
Trainor is bullish. His great-uncle Angus Cahill was part of the Louth team enjoyed Minor Football Championship success in 1940, their fourth triumph of eight to date. A ninth would be a first in 64 years. “I think we have bottle. We never bottle it. We had our chances and we took them. Even against Laois, that game could have been over in normal time.”
That fact that it wasn’t was down in large part to goalkeeper Alan McGauley. With ten minutes remaining and Louth trailing by a point, McGauley dived to his left to save a penalty. John Gallagher would duly go onto make no mistake from the same situation at the other end to send An Lu through.
The players are quick to praise the impact Wayne ‘Bubbles’ Kierans has had on the group. The former Naomh Fionnbarra man has seen his side make history already by reaching the final and will attempt to guide them to go one further tomorow.
“Wayne always makes the right calls. In the Wexford game, to bring on five subs in a tight game like that, it shows how good a manager he is,” Trainor says. “He makes all the right calls at all the right times.”
Gillespie concurs. “It shows that he stands by his players as well. People will say the talent is greater in other counties than in Louth but it just goes to show there is a lot of talent in Louth – the whole way up. You can see it in the squad from 1 to 30 we have a serious abundance of talent.”
One of that talented crop is Liam Jackson. Unlike his teammates who have represented their county at various juvenile levels, the inter-county experience is totally new to him. To date his Louth history reads – three games, three wins and a Croke Park final to look forward to.
“I’ve never really played for Louth before and I decided I wanted to play really,” Jackson tells us, much to the humour of his teammates. “With the school this year, there was a Leinster A comp – Ardee, Dunleer, Bush and O’Fiach. I played in that and I got a call from Wayne asking did I want to join the Louth squad. I originally did but I wanted to play soccer [with Dundalk]. Then I came back and played GAA.”
Kierans has heaped praise on Jackson for his performances in midfield since the spring and it goes to show the impact he has made that he appears a certainty to continue alongside Conor Morgan against Dublin. What of the challenge poised by the men from the capital?
“It’s just another team,” Gillespie says.”They’re just young fellas going out on the pitch the same as us. There’s no reason why we can’t go out and play our game and win. No matter what, just get out and perform,”
Keenan is of a similar mindset. “We don’t fear them,” he adds. Whatever happens, Sunday will live long in the memory for all. The players admit they’re not regular visitors to Croke Park. It’s understandable, Louth don’t often get a chance to lineout at the venue very often.
“It’s once in a lifetime,” Gillespie says. “You dream about this since you were three-years-old. For a GAA man, it’s a dream come true.”