‘It’s a free shot, a shot they’ve earned’ - Mickey Harte’s leadership proving to be a turning point for Louth

Wee County on the verge of progressing from Division Four to One in just three years

On Sunday, Mickey Harte leads Louth out at Croke Park in what is essentially a Division Two promotion playoff against Dublin. Photograph: Ciaran Culligan/Inpho

Haggardstown, that’s where it started. It was post-lockdown but pre-Louth football revolution. Division Four fare, Antrim coming down the road, Google Maps helping them to locate McGeough Park.

It was May 2021, a largely unremarkable fixture on only the second weekend of the GAA season that year. Still, it generated a small ripple of interest in certain quarters as it was Mickey Harte’s first game as Louth manager. Gavin Devlin, his trusted lieutenant in Tyrone, was by his side again.

The Antrim boss that afternoon was Enda McGinley, who had played his entire Tyrone senior football career under Harte. Harte’s 18-year spell as Tyrone manager had ended the previous November and, for some, his immediate switch to another county felt like an ill-conceived rebound. Less than two weeks after stepping down in Tyrone, he was stepping up in Louth. Louth? Louth were going nowhere fast.

Harte had handed back the keys of a muscle car only to hop straight in a Renault Clio, here he was turning on the low-grunt engine, smoking the tyres in an act of defiance and setting off like a glacier in his new Wee motor.


Pete McGrath had tried and failed in Louth. A two-time All-Ireland-winning manager with Down, McGrath was in charge of Louth in 2018, the last time they played in Division Two. They lost all seven games and were relegated.

On Sunday, Harte leads Louth out at Croke Park in what is essentially a Division Two promotion playoff against Dublin. Since that one-point defeat to Antrim in May 2021, Louth have only suffered three further league losses. Harte has managed them in 18 league matches, winning 13, losing four and drawing one.

If Louth upset the odds and beat Dublin, they will have catapulted from Division Four to One in just over three seasons, achieving successive promotions.

Getting that first win in the Limerick game set them on their way and they have been growing in belief ever since

—  Darren Clarke

“The arrival of Mickey Harte changed everything,” believes former Louth forward Darren Clarke.

“We’ve always had the footballers in Louth, the players would have the skill set and the quality as good as you’d get anywhere, but I think it just took the likes of Mickey Harte and Gavin Devlin to come in and add another dimension.

“Belief is a big thing in football, I think the lads now have that because of what Harte and Devlin are doing. There has been a total buy-in by the players to what the management are trying to achieve, they have everybody playing for the red jersey. Mickey Harte coming in, that was the turning point.”

Operating in Division Four – or to be precise; Division Four North (remember when regionalised leagues were a Covid-forced construction?) – Harte had the opportunity to experiment with players and tactics. It allowed him to build a team from the ground up.

“I think Mickey was lucky in that regard because he came in at a low enough base in Division Four, where you could mould your squad,” adds Clarke. “That might not have been possible if Louth had been in higher divisions.”

Harte and Devlin have a panel of players fully invested in this Louth project, players who know their individual role and how to implement it for the greater good of a well-organised system.

After Derry, Louth have the best defensive record in Division Two – and that has not happened by chance. That has been achieved by intensive coaching, honing a defensive system and hard work. It’s also only possible if there is a willingness from players to trust what the management are saying.

At the outset of the league, most pundits would have tipped Louth to finish below Meath in the table. But Meath enters the last round of games in fifth place and are unable to overtake Louth. The Royals have a scoring tally of seven points greater than Louth’s, but the most significant difference is at the other end of the field where Louth have conceded a total of 83 points, while Meath has shipped 116.

Louth's Darren Clarke: 'The arrival of Mickey Harte changed everything.' Photograph: Ryan Byrne/Inpho

Louth’s counter-attacking game has been effective and clearly, the players have been empowered and encouraged to take on chances, because another of the Wee County’s weapons has been a large spread of scorers. They had nine different players on target against Meath, nine against Kildare and eight against Cork.

But there have been speedbumps along the way – not least because of injuries to some key men, including former AFL player Ciarán Byrne, and current team captain Sam Mulroy. Byrne is out for the season after suffering a cruciate knee ligament injury in Louth’s league opener against Clare. Mulroy has been sidelined with a hamstring injury since the Kildare game.

And Harte has also had to deal with issues in Louth’s goalkeeping department. He has started four different goalkeepers this term – Declan Byrne, Martin McEneaney, Peter McStravick and James Califf.

Of that quartet, only McEneaney plays in goal for his club while the other three are better known as outfield players. Over the course of his tenure, he has tried six different goalkeepers, but Harte managed to get Califf back involved for 2023 and he is expected to remain Louth’s number one for the rest of the season.

“I would say Louth are in a really good place at the minute,” adds Clarke. “After two games it mightn’t have looked so good, but realistically they deserved something from the Clare game and they actually played very well against Derry.

“Getting that first win in the Limerick game set them on their way and they have been growing in belief ever since.”

Clarke knows what it is like for Louth to be fishing in these deep waters. He scored four points in the Division Two final replay in 2006 when Louth beat Donegal at Breffni Park. Louth also won the Division Two title in 2000, but on both occasions, the leagues were divided between Divisions 1A, 1B, 2A and 2B.

Clarke has watched the team closely this term and aside from the commitment of the players, the Ardee man feels the entire county has got behind Harte’s Louth revival. He remembers a similar wave growing in 2006 – Louth progressed to win the Tommy Murphy Cup that year. Clarke also claimed the competition’s Footballer of the Year accolade.

In recent weeks, he has watched kids excitedly ready themselves to race out on the field near the end of Louth matches. His own son and daughter have been there milling around in it all, as the Louth footballers create new heroes every other weekend. It has been good for the soul.

“There is a great buzz around the county at the minute,” he says. “Coming from Division Four to where we are now in such a short space of time is brilliant, it has been an exciting journey for the team and the supporters.

“We won the Division Two title back in 2006 and it kind of feels similar around the county right now, to see the team going so well it brings back memories from that time. There was a great camaraderie around the group when we were winning and I’ve no doubt the lads are experiencing that same bond right now.

“When you see hundreds of kids running around after games looking for autographs and pictures, not from the opposition players but from the Louth players, that is a sign the team is making an impact, they are role models for the kids.”

Speaking recently on the GPA’s Player’s Voice podcast, Mulroy offered an insight into the belief and drive Harte has instilled in the Louth dressingroom.

“We’ve spoken about it with Louth, ‘can we leave a legacy? Can we change something here?’

“For Louth, it’s probably a case changing the narrative around Louth GAA. I think it’s massively important that us as a team and us as a generation of players can leave Louth in a better position than we got it.

“Hopefully that’s Louth competing in Division One and Two comfortably. For me, that’s massively important.”

Louth's Sam Mulroy in action with Clare's Pearse Lillis at Cusack Park. Photograph: Evan Treacy/Inpho

Of course, the task in front of them on Sunday is sizeable. Louth are currently in third place with eight points, while Dublin are second on 10. A draw would be enough for Dublin to secure promotion, while Louth need to win and would then leapfrog the Dubs on the head-to-head metric.

Dublin are favourites to win, but then so were Meath when they played Louth and so were Kildare and so were Cork. Clarke says none of the Louth players will have any inferiority complex running out to play Dublin on Sunday.

Clarke played his club football in Dublin for five years, joining Malahide outfit St Sylvester’s in 2008 and had a starring role when they claimed a first-ever Division One League title. During his stint in the capital, he was marked by the likes of Rory O’Carroll and Ger Brennan. He was also selected on the Blue Stars team – the annual selection of the best footballers on the Dublin club scene.

In 2006, his then-Louth colleague Shane Lennon scored the winning point for UCD as they beat St Vincent’s in the Dublin SFC final. Pat Gilroy and Diarmuid Connolly played for Vinnies that day. Current Louth midfielder Conor Early has recently transferred to Na Fianna – so he is likely to come up against some of his new clubmates on Sunday, such as Eoin Murchan and David O’Hanlon.

“One of the biggest differences between clubs in Dublin and counties like Louth is numbers,” adds Clarke.

“Many clubs in Dublin have such big numbers and you could have three, four, five adult teams. I enjoyed my time there, it was a great experience playing in Dublin.”

Peter Fitzpatrick says Louth windfall is on solid groundOpens in new window ]

NFL Division Two round-up: Louth end 66-year wait for win over Cork and keep promotion hopes aliveOpens in new window ]

Clarke returned to Ardee about a decade ago now, and at 39 years of age he continues to play for his home club, St Mary’s. Last October he finally won his first Louth senior football title. There’s a lesson in perseverance there somewhere.

Lessons. Few intercounty teams have been taking on-board new ideas over the last three years more than the Louth footballers.

Both Louth and Antrim were promoted from Division Four in 2021. When the sides met in Division Three the following season, Louth ran out four point winners. The previous year in Haggardstown, the Saffrons had scored 1-15. Less than 12 months later, Louth limited Antrim to just 1-8.

Clarke will be at Croke Park on Sunday, along with what is expected to be a sizeable Louth contingent.

“Dublin are favourites,” he says. “But the lads are going to embrace the challenge, they’ve worked so hard to get to this great position, going to Croke Park on the last day to play Dublin for a chance of promotion, that’s where you want to be and no matter what happens it will be great preparation for championship.

“I’ve no doubt Mickey Harte will have the players going out there fully believing they can challenge Dublin. It’s a free shot, a shot they’ve earned.”

From McGeough Park to Croke Park.

Louth, not so haggard these days.

Gordon Manning

Gordon Manning

Gordon Manning is a sports journalist, specialising in Gaelic games, with The Irish Times