Despite the faded novelty of it being their first championship meeting since the 1950 All-Ireland final, Mayo against Louth on Sunday will likely decide Group One of the Sam Maguire round-robin phase. Given what’s been, and what’s to come.
Louth will almost certainly need to get something at MacHale Park to avoid an exit-pending sign, their third and final game coming against All-Ireland champions Kerry next weekend.
Other counties are in a similar position: Westmeath (Group Two), Sligo and Kildare (Group Three) and Clare (Group Four) all fighting to avoid probable exit before the last round; not that everything is carved in stone just yet.
If Cork can also upset Kerry in Páirc Uí Chaoimh on Saturday, Louth will still have something to play for in the final game.
For Peter Fitzpatrick, the former Louth player, manager and now county chair, the round-robin experience has already stood to them, even if they do come out of it with nothing.
“Go back three years, we were playing Division Four football,” said the Independent TD for Louth and East Meath on a break from Dáil duties on Wednesday.
“Now, we’re after staying up again in Division Two, after playing the likes of Derry, Kildare, Meath, Cork, Dublin. Which was absolutely fantastic for us. In Leinster, we beat Westmeath and Offaly, got to the final against Dublin.
“Last week we played Cork, were disappointed we did not get a result there; that game could have gone either way. But I still think that was another step in the right direction, as was making a Leinster final. If you told me three years ago, that we’d be playing Dublin, Mayo and Kerry, all in the one summer, I’d say you were dreaming.
“Because this is every footballer’s dream, to be playing the top teams like this, and we’re hopeful of improving again over the next few years, seeing the standard we need to get up to.”
That 1950 All-Ireland, incidentally, was won by Mayo, defending their title against Meath the following year (and we all remember what happened next).
For Louth, and manager Mickey Harte, the experience of playing another in-form team is invaluable (Mayo beat Kerry 1-19 to 0-17 in the first round).
“We know going up to Castlebar on Sunday, no one is giving us a chance,” says Fitzpatrick, “and we know Mayo and Kerry are two of the top teams in the country right now. But we need to test ourselves against this standard, and it’s not a cliche to say we’re going up there with our own expectations.
“It looks like it’s going to be Portlaoise then the following week, against Kerry, and we’ll have lots of Louth support travelling to that too. So again this is the stuff of dreams for everyone in Louth over the last 60 years, to be playing top-class football like this. I played for Louth for 16 years, and we never once played Mayo in the championship during that time.
“It also means we need to keep raising the bar, step up higher. We’ve a lot of work ahead of us, but these are definitely the sort of games you want.”
Cork were pressed by Louth all the way in the first round, holding on 1-19 to 1-17, that game played at Páirc Tailteann in Navan, given Louth doesn’t have a home ground of intercounty standard. Fitzpatrick is pressing hard to change that too.
“It is an awful shame, when you qualify for the last 16 of the All-Ireland, you have to go to your neighbour, to use their stadium. Hopefully, by September of next year, we will have our own stadium in Dundalk. We’ve raised a lot of money so far, and we just hope the powers-that-be in Croke Park can get us through that last phase. We’re actually meeting the people in Croke Park tomorrow [Thursday], and hopefully they’ll give us the thumbs up.
“We’ve got our own 14-acre site, right in the middle of Dundalk, geographically it’s a perfect site, with plans all drawn.”
Harte has plenty of championship experience playing Mayo during his time as Tyrone manager (winning one, losing three). For Fitzpatrick, the new experience is all part of Louth’s learning curve.
“We played some fantastic football in the league, this team has great potential, and the hope is we can mix it with some of the best over the next number of years. And we’re looking forward to the experience.
“As I said, we were disappointed we didn’t beat Cork last week, I thought we were very, very even, only a kick of a ball between us. I know we’ve an uphill battle now against Mayo and Kerry, but again Louth football have been dreaming about this over the last 50, 60 years, to be playing the top teams in the championship.”