Mickey Harte is gone, but low expectations will not do Ger Brennan and Louth any harm

Brennan has taken command of a rocket on the rise. There is peril in that. What if the only way is down?

The Louth footballers are fine, since you are wondering. They do not need your sympathy. They will get by just fine without your pity. They know what most people’s opinions are on what happened with Mickey Harte over the winter and they will pass on hearing them again, thanks all the same. They are nobody’s jilted brides.

A few weeks after Harte and his coach Gavin Devlin left for Derry last September, the panel gathered in the house of midfielder Tommy Durnin. They filled the fridge with beer and then proceeded to empty it. They sat around and took the piss and talked about what they knew to be true. It had been a good year. They were in a good place. Everything else was fuzz and static. Outsider chat.

“The team just came together,” says Durnin. “We had a few beers and we said: ‘We know where we are, we know where we want to be. Mickey and them are gone, that’s their decision. That’s grand, we had three years. But the players have to push this.’

“We just put the head down and kept working. We were working with our strength and conditioning, we were doing our own club thing as well. We’re long enough on the road now to know what we want to achieve. We have all the S&C, the nutrition, all we need around us.


“It’s up to us. We have high expectations of ourselves. We are the ones who have to push it on. Things happen in life. You just get on with it and move on. It’s a new challenge now. It’s something that we’re looking forward to.”

The new challenge has a new name above the door, of course. Ger Brennan has worn plenty of different coats since he called time on his Dublin career in 2015. GAA executive in University College Dublin. Back room coach with Carlow under Niall Carew. Stints at Moorefield and Bray Emmets. Occasional pundit. Father of four.

After pinballing around the intercounty waiting room – he has been linked with everyone from Monaghan to Wicklow to Laois in the past few winters – Brennan was appointed to the Louth job at the start of October. He is the first of Dublin’s breakthrough 2011 team to take up a bainisteoir bib at intercounty level.

It is an odd sort of challenge he faces. More often than not, a new manager arrives because the previous regime ran out of road. This one ran out of town. The main reason it rankled was that Harte and Devlin were leaving behind a Louth team that had just completed its best season in years.

They came third in Division Two. They made a first Leinster final since 2010. Granted, they finished bottom of their group in the Sam Maguire but not before they ran both Cork and Mayo to the edge of the cliff. They took hidings from Dublin and Kerry along the way but they were hardly unique in either case.

The point is, Brennan has taken command of a rocket that has been on the rise. His job is to make sure last year was not the peak of their whole experience. There is peril in that. What if the only way is down?

“It’s like anything,” Brennan says. “Even from my own playing days, it was a matter of once we did it once, people expected us to do it again. These guys are not supermen. They’re not demigods. They’re the same as you and I.

“What’s great, from chatting to the lads since coming in, they’ve got a taste of what it’s like to get to a Leinster final, to get to the All-Ireland series and to be a couple of kicks of a ball away from getting promoted to Division One. So they’re hungry for more success. Obviously the management we’ve brought in, we’re looking to listen to the guys.

“We’ve done an awful lot of work with them, finding out what worked for them last year and so on. I’ve said it before – success leaves clues. I’m not an idiot and I’m not egotistical.

“You’re not ripping up the script here. You’re looking to probably tweak it a small bit here and there and to marry some of the old ways of playing with some of the new ideas. That’s probably what’s exciting me the most.”

And it starts now. Anything good that has happened to Louth in the past few years has had its first spark in the league. They won back-to-back league trophies by taking Division Four in 2021 and Division Three in 2022. They actually began last year’s campaign with two defeats on the bounce but responded by going on a four-game winning run against Limerick, Meath, Kildare and Cork.

It was enough to lift them out of Tailteann Cup danger and still in the promotion hunt on the last day. Well, nominally in the promotion hunt – they would have had to beat Dublin in Croke Park. That was the day Stephen Cluxton reappeared during the warm-up. Nobody was really talking about Louth’s permutations after that.

But they know well that very few expect them to repeat the dose this time around. They are seven-point underdogs away to Armagh in their opener. Inasmuch as bookies’ odds are worth consulting for anything, it means that they are the least fancied team of any of the 32 counties playing this weekend. Needless to say, they do not see it that way. Or anything like it.

“When you’re playing Division Two,” says Sam Mulroy, “the ultimate goal is to get to Division One. Other than that it’s to stay there and put yourself in the hat for the All-Ireland. Every game is massive.

“Coming towards the end of the league last year, all the teams in places three, four, five and six were all still in with a shout of not making the cut for the All-Ireland. It was going to go down to the wire.

“Obviously then you’d be going into a Leinster championship campaign knowing that if you don’t make the final, you could be in trouble still. There’s serious pressure on those games. But you wouldn’t want to be anywhere else.

“I said at the time, it was never Mickey Harte’s county. It’s players who represent Louth on the pitch. Managers come and go. When they’re there, they gave it their all. There’s a respect there between managers and players and you get on with it. It’s as exciting having Ger in as it was having Mickey there.

“It’s a serious position to be in for a Louth footballer to be going playing under All-Ireland winners. Nothing has changed in that way. Life goes on. We’ve played under many managers before, we’ll play under many in years to come. It is what it is.

“We do a job when we cross those white lines, we do it to the best of our ability every time. It’s just a different message, a different voice every few years. That’s the way GAA is.”

On that, Brennan has brought a host of different voices in with him. James McCartan has come in as coach, alongside David Whyte from his Moorefield days. Niall Moyna is in as a selector and coach, former Ireland rugby international James Downey is performance coach. There is no shortage of expertise about the place in Darver these nights.

“Even talking to a few buddies, they’re asking what it’s like to be involved fully in a senior intercounty team in comparison to club,” Brennan says. “I would say it’s easier. Because you’re not chasing players the whole time. When you’re managing a club, there’s fellas getting pulled and dragged everywhere – this shift went over, that shift went over, me granny’s sick and everything else.

“Whereas at intercounty, it’s actually quite refreshing. You’re working with a talented and hard-working group so it’s actually very easy to be honest. They make a week like this very easy because you know how focused they are, you know they’re doing the work behind the scenes, the analysis, the sharing of ideas with the old and the new, trying to find the sweet spot for how we’re going to set up against Armagh.

“I’m not one for panicking. I’ll be fairly calm to be honest. When the previous management stepped away, the players came together and took ownership and that’s been very evident to me since coming in. There’s a real desire for the group to continue to improve.”

For the likes of Mulroy and Durnin, there is no time for transition or bedding in or any obfuscation. Durnin laughs that he is around long enough to have played alongside his new manager – they were on a Donegal team in the Boston championship one summer back in a different life. He made his 100th appearance for Louth last summer – he has no time or patience for hand-wringing or looking back.

“Mickey was three years,” Durnin says. “Sometimes you need that new face. Ger and his back room team have brought in some good new ideas. And we’ve also worked on what worked well for us last year.

“There’s huge experience there with Ger and his team. As players, we just want to keep pushing, pushing, pushing. To keep Louth moving forward.”

For them, 2023 was a launch point, not an apex. If others think different, so be it. Low expectations will not do them any harm.

  • Sign up for push alerts and have the best news, analysis and comment delivered directly to your phone
  • Find The Irish Times on WhatsApp and stay up to date
  • Our In The News podcast is now published daily – Find the latest episode here