This time last year, no football team in Ireland was having a worse time of it than Louth. Four games into the league, they were set in concrete at the foot of Division Two having lost handsomely each time out.
They had the worst points difference in the country (-38), the leakiest defence (7-63 conceded) and the second-worst points-scored total (0-46). Their average margin of defeat was over nine points. Only for Wicklow scoring four less than them in Division Four, they’d have been able to go to go along to bad stat bingo and shout house all night.
Twelve months on and the turnaround has made them one of the eye-catching stories of the early league. Granted, they’re a division lower down this time around, and the heat isn’t as high in the third stream as it was in the second. For all that, you only have to look at the numbers to see a side transformed.
The team that were the second-lowest scorers in the country this day 12 months ago are now the highest. They’ve scored 10 goals; nobody else has more than six against their name. They’ve gone from having the worst points difference to the joint-best, with Sunday’s 5-16 to 0-16 rout of Sligo pushing them on to +20. As a result, they sit top of Division Three, level on six points with Down but with a 15-points superior scoring difference.
"I wouldn't say I'm too surprised," says first-year manager Wayne Kierans, a selector under Pete McGrath last year. "When you come off the back of a poor season like we did – and I was involved in the management team last year as well – you're obviously looking to bounce back.
“So I don’t see why people should be surprised that the two teams who have come down from Division Two are at the top of Division Three now. Obviously there’s three games left to go yet, so there’s nothing near decided yet. But I don’t think it’s a mad surprise that we wanted to bounce back up and hopefully that’s what we’re doing.”
Kierans can and must brush these things off until the cows come home. But any way you turn it, it’s a remarkable shift in fortunes. Nothing is guaranteed at this point, of course. With Down, Longford, Laois and Westmeath all in the hunt, the scrap for the top two places in Division Three come March 24th is going to be fairly frantic. But even just to bring about a reset like this so soon after the disastrous 2018 they had under McGrath is an achievement in itself.
“I think we were confident enough that we would turn it around,” Kierans says. “Last year was a massive ask for Pete and the team because he was coming in sort of raw and didn’t know a lot of the players. On top of that, that level is much higher in Division Two than it is in Division Three. I would suggest there’s a significant difference between the two divisions. We were certainly confident we could turn it around and be ultra-competitive at this level, and that’s proven to be the case so far.
‘Create the balance’
“My mindset is just to create the balance of defensive and attacking football. So far that’s what we’re doing and it takes an awful lot of work on the training ground. I would suggest that we’re nowhere near where we need to be. We started last November and we just want to improve all the time. The mindset is of course to try and play attacking football, but to try and mind the house at the same time.”
The league is very important to us. This is where we're going to get ultra-competitive games
Louth have had ex-Dundalk FC man Graham Byrne in to oversee the strength and conditioning work, to obvious effect. That they've managed to have success so far without some of their more high-profile players has been another feather in their cap. Ryan Burns, Conor Grimes and Ciaran Byrne will, all going well, be pillars of Kierans's championship team in time, but all three are sidelined for the foreseeable future. Louth are getting on with it, regardless.
“This is our main competition,” says Kierans. “Everyone can see how difficult it is for Leinster teams to win a provincial championship with the juggernaut of Dublin there. The league is very important to us. This is where we’re going to get ultra-competitive games. Turn to the summer and we have Wexford in the first round of the championship and the winners play Dublin.
“So, not to say there’s a dead end there, but obviously it’s going to be difficult to progress to a provincial final. So the league is very, very important. Everybody talks about these league games being competitive and the narrative is that they’re the most important games you’ll play all year – and it think that’s right. That’s what we’re playing at the minute and thankfully it’s going well.”