Tired of being second-class citizens


THERE is a hint of deja vu for Seamus O'Hanlon as he and Louth count down to Sunday's resumption of the National Football League and their second-division match with Dublin at Parnell Park.

For the last five of years of his long inter-county career, O'Hanlon can remember Louth pushing to the margins of promotion before narrowly missing the boat.

"Over those years we have gone into the last game every year knowing we'd a chance of promotion. We've missed out on playoffs and lost a play-off and some of us feel we've been a nearly team. A certain amount of it is a problem with belief but there's also been a certain amount of bad luck.

In some of these years, the margin was a little thicker than others but Louth can lay claim to being Division Two's longest-serving citizens, having moved neither up nor down since winning promotion in the late 1980s.

The League experience has been a low-profile metaphor for the county's track record in the championship where their interest has been ended at the semi-final stage four times in the last six years.

Four times during the same period - on three occasions in tightly contested semi-finals - Dublin have blocked Louth's path. Last June they led the then All-Ireland champions going into the closing 10 minutes and only 11 by Joe McNally saved the day for Dublin.

O'Hanlon made his inter-county debut at the age of 17, in 1985. A physically strong player, he is also a high-quality footballer whose midfield play frequently causes surprise to people who are led to wonder why Louth have failed to reach a Leinster final since 1960.

In latter years he has been a mainstay on the Leinster Railway Cup team, winning a medal last year, and last weekend he performed outstandingly as the champions crushed Ulster by 10 points. His work with Laois's Tony Maher eclipsed an opposition midfield of Anthony Tohill and Paul Brewster.

There may have been little success in the 1990s for Louth but the years have been sprinkled with incidents. Looking back over the seasons, O'Hanlon identifies 1991 as the principal lost opportunity. That year of the long-running Dublin-Meath first-round tie saw Louth meet Laois in a semi-final. Despite abundant chances, Louth were taken to a replay and beaten in a match which featured a celebrated outbreak of gang warfare.

O'Hanlon has particular reason to remember the event as it earned his brother Kevin a hefty suspension for racing off the substitutes' bench to involve himself in the hostilities. (Kevin has opted out of the inter-county scene over the past two years but O'Hanlon's other brother Cathal, on his day an incisive corner forward, is still involved).

"The first day we kicked wide after wide. It was a big missed opportunity because Meath had been run off their feet by Dublin and nearly lost to Wicklow. We would have been in good shape to meet them in a Leinster final.

"Over the past five years we have had nearly the same panel. Most of them are around my age, 27 to 29, and we all know that we're getting to the stage where if things don't happen, we can throw our hat at it.

Anyone looking for an underlying reason as to why this year should be different to the recent seasons needs only to look at the draw for this summer's Leinster championship. On one side are ranged the four counties - Dublin, Meath, Laois and Kildare - who between them have contested the Leinster final for the past 13 years. On the other side, Louth are on paper the most likely county to make it to the provincial decider on August 3rd.

This isn't all positive because, as O'Hanlon accepts, Louth generally perform most poorly when expectations are highest. But the possibilities haven't been missed by the panel in general.

"We've worked hard over Christmas with Philip Phelan who came in as trainer in November," said O'Hanlon. "Everyone has had their own personal fitness programme and it's been a lot easier to get guys out training.

"A lot of us feel this could be a big year. I think it's important for us to get into the play-offs. Otherwise we've nothing to do between March and June except organise challenge matches."

The first step towards breaking out of Division Two comes at the weekend when Louth face their old adversaries Dublin in Parnell Park. Last summer's championship memories won't be dominating Louth's approach to the match. It's a lot more complicated than that.

"You can go back 20 years," says O'Hanlon, "and Dublin have beaten us in nearly every important match. But last year in Dundalk we beat them at this time of the year and that was a big load off our back. Next Sunday will be a big match."