Expectations rising in Louth with first All-Ireland quarter-final within sight

Geography may suggest an unequal battle against Cork, but the Wee County will be gunning to make history

Louth’s Conor Early celebrating after his side's league win over Cork last year. Photograph: Ciaran Culligan/Inpho

Geography suggests Cork versus Louth is an unequal battle, but the Wee County footballers are more concerned with history this week – a victory in Inniskeen would see them advance to a first All-Ireland Senior Football Championship (SFC) quarter-final.

So, while Sunday’s All-Ireland preliminary quarter-final at the Monaghan venue is a fixture between Ireland’s largest county by area and its smallest, in recent years the Louth footballers have held their own mixing it with the big boys in the school of hard knocks.

Louth have played six championship games this summer and their only defeats have come against Dublin and Kerry.

And while Louth have not beaten Cork in the championship since the celebrated 1957 All-Ireland SFC final (before the introduction of quarter-finals), they did overcome the Rebels by two points when the sides met in Ardee during the league this season.


In fact, that was their second successive league triumph over Cork as they beat the Leesiders by three points at the same venue in 2023 as well. However, in the last two championship meetings between the sides, Cork emerged victorious – winning a qualifier by four points in 2022 and emerging with a two-point victory from the group stages last May.

There is a sense Louth have already put down a positive season of progress and development. They retained their Division Two status, contested a second successive Leinster final and beat neighbours Meath in the championship for the first time since 1975. A decent season’s grafting.

Even if they come up short against Cork, surely it has already been a successful campaign for Louth?

“From knowing some of those guys in that dressingroom, if their season ends this weekend with a defeat to Cork, I think they’ll be very disappointed,” says former Louth manager Wayne Kierans.

“The expectations have gone up a level over the last number of years within the group. If Louth were to lose, maybe when the dust settles in a few weeks and they look back on it, the players will feel it was a positive season.

“But if Louth lose on Sunday I think those lads will be devastated on the pitch afterwards, because they have a chance to make history here.

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“I’d imagine Louth and Cork were happy enough with how the draw played out last Monday because both teams will feel they have a chance of progressing. But for Louth, a win would be huge and it really would provide the team with a free hit in an All-Ireland quarter-final.”

Kierans, who managed Louth from 2019-2020, believes the benefit of having snatched second in the group cannot be overstated. By edging Monaghan for that spot on scoring difference, Louth have gained a “home” preliminary quarter-final while Monaghan must travel to Salthill to face Galway.

“Clinching second place was huge,” says Kierans, who also managed the Louth minors to a Leinster final appearance in 2017. “You didn’t want to be facing an away trip so avoiding third was the biggest thing to come out of last weekend for Louth.”

Kierans has recent experience of managing against Cork, one of his last games at the helm was a league fixture away to the Rebels during a time of severe Covid restrictions.

Former Louth football manager Wayne Kierans. Photograph: Inpho

After five months in cold storage, the 2020 National Football League resumed in October of that year, and Louth’s first task was to face Cork at Páirc Uí Chaoimh.

“The build-up to the game was strange, we were missing some players because of the virus and with everything that was going on at the time we didn’t know if the game would be going ahead,” recalls Kierans.

“For a game like that, given the distance, usually there would be an overnight stay but we weren’t allowed to do that at the time because of the restrictions so we travelled down and back up on the same day.

“I remember talking with Cian O’Neill, who was involved with Cork at the time, and he was surprised the game was going ahead. There was a sort of, ‘thank you for coming all the way down to play the match’ kind of feeling around the game. It was a strange day.”

And a disappointing one for Louth, as Cork ran out 5-19 to 0-16 winners. The following week, Longford conceded a walkover to the Rebels.

Kierans has gone to watch Louth play this year and feels manager Ger Brennan deserves great credit for moving the team forward.

The departure of Mickey Harte, and the swiftness of his exit, had the potential to derail Louth’s progress.

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“There certainly was a concern Louth could fall back down the divisions after Mickey left, but to be fair Ger has done a great job so far,” Kierans says.

“There has been development of the players already there and some newer players have also come in and made an impact.

“The style of play in the first few games was largely similar to how the team had played under Mickey but as the season has gone on, I think they have become better at it and they’ve also become a bit more expansive too.

“There’s no doubt Louth have kicked on this season, but the question now is have we kicked on enough to progress to an All-Ireland quarter-final?”

Louth’s latest exam awaits – geography or history? Sunday will tell.

Gordon Manning

Gordon Manning

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