Down make trip to Drogheda for Division Two opener against Pete McGrath Louth side
Allianz National Football League Division Two: Louth v Down (tomorrow, Drogheda, 2pm)
A HEALTHY crowd turned out to watch Pete McGrath’s first game in charge of Louth just after Christmas.
On a wintry day in Darver, McGrath’s ‘Wee County’ lost to Longford in Leinster’s O’Byrne Cup and the Down natives in the crowd – and there were a few – would have driven home feeling confident that the Mournemen would win tomorrow’s Division Two opener.
However, a few days later McGrath’s men travelled to Kildare where they recorded an impressive away win that has helped bolster confidence ahead of the county’s first game in the second flight since 2014.
Back then Louth finished bottom of the table after a wretched campaign that included a 4-16 to 0-9 hammering in Newry. Relegation to Division Four followed in 2015 before the county got its act together and began an upwardly mobile march that has yielded back-to-back promotions since.
Manager Colin Kelly stepped down at the end of last season and the experienced McGrath was brought in to guide the side in Division Two. He has kept the squad together and tomorrow’s line-up includes eight players who featured in that game against Longford.
Naomh Mairtin forward Sam Mulroy and Niall Conlan (O’Connell’s) are the only absentees and McGrath – who recorded a victory over his native Down as Fermanagh manager in last season’s Division Two opener – says his players are determined to prove they belong in the second tier.
“That sense of excitement and anticipation is there but I’d be surprised if it didn’t prevail in all the county squads,” said McGrath.
“If you’re playing inter-county football you have to be looking forward to the matches, you have to want to play in matches at this level – that’s why you make the sacrifices that inter-county do. That’s what drives us all on.”
McGrath hasn’t had a lot of time to get to know his players never mind work out the system he feels suits them best. Tommy Durnin has hit the ground running in midfield alongside team captain Andy McDonnell in front of an established half-back line that includes Derek Maguire, Bevan Duffy and Darren Marks. Meanwhile, Ryan Burns (if fully fit) and Tadhg McEneaney, who hit 2-1 against the Lilywhites, give the side a cutting edge up front.
Meanwhile, Down manager Eamonn Burns has lost a half-dozen players from the panel that reached last year’s Ulster Championship final including goalkeeper Michael Cunningham.
The Dr McKenna Cup yielded one win (over Ulster University) and losses to Derry and Armagh but Down played with a sense of purpose and they were competitive in all three games. Burns was able to run his eye over some new faces and ease Benny McArdle, Keith Quinn and Niall Madine back into action.
Burns’ men make the trip to Drogheda as favourites, but what do the bookies know? After all, the Mournemen were tipped for relegation but scrapped tooth and nail to stay in Division Two last season.
Stability is the obvious next step and if Down hope to take it, or push for promotion, this is a game they need to win. The pace of Caolan Mooney and Darragh O’Hanlon will cause Louth problems down the flanks, but the Drogheda pitch will be heavy and Down, with Kevin McKernan pulling the strings from his own half, could look to send the ball in early to the likes of Connaire Harrison and Conor Maginn.
This Mourne outfit has proved its resilience but tomorrow is a new experience for many of the players because they are expected to win. Louth will be determined to prove the bookies wrong, but Down should take the points.
Louth: C Lynch; J Bingham, E Carolan, J Craven; D Marks, B Duffy, A Williams; T Durnin, A McDonnell; D Maguire, J McEneaney, G McSorley; D Byrne, R Burns, W Woods