Allianz National Football League Division Three: Louth v Antrim (Tomorrow, Ardee, 2pm)
TEN months have passed since Enda McGinley breathed a huge sigh of relief upon leaving Haggardstown after getting his Antrim managerial reign off to a winning start against his former manager Mickey Harte.
Ryan Murray struck a stoppage-time beauty to sink Louth in a Division Four game that swung back and forth with neither team able to sustain their periods of ascendancy.
In a League campaign truncated by COVID, Antrim pushed on to clinch promotion – but Louth managed to regroup to join them in Division Three.
With all the Tyrone angles already squeezed out of this meeting from last year, McGinley and Harte won’t have the media side-shows to distract them as they are reacquainted in Ardee tomorrow to debate two crucial League points at the top of Division Three.
The fact that both counties currently sit in the top two berths is a clear indication that the difference in quality between Division Three and Four is negligible.
That’s why the pair have enjoyed back-to-back promotions from Division Four to Division Two in the last decade – and there’s no reason why they can’t go up another NFL rung together this year.
Of course, the chasing pack of Westmeath, Limerick, Fermanagh and Laois would hope to have a say in promotion with two rounds of games remaining.
So how is the Louth project been going under Harte and Gavin ‘Horse’ Devlin? Like most teams in the lower echelons, turbulence is part of the terrain.
If anything, Louth looked like going back down to Division Four after shipping three goals and losing their opener at home to Laois before posting an even worse display in a low-scoring and desperately drab encounter with Longford that needed an equalising free eight minutes into stoppage-time from the trusted boot of Sam Mulroy.
The natives were decidedly restless as they watched their side muster a paltry 1-6 in 70-plus minutes of football.
But things have got better since – much better, in fact. They beat Limerick on a 3G pitch down in UL – something that Antrim couldn’t do at Corrigan Park – and followed that up with impressive wins over Westmeath and Fermanagh to put them level pegging with tomorrow’s visitors.
There are a few reasons for Louth’s upturn in fortunes, the main one was Harte and Devlin persuading James Califf to end his two-year inter-county sabbatical - not to return and play midfield but keep goal for the ‘Wee’ County.
Califf, known for his goalkeeping exploits in soccer, has been a revelation since he came back. The team's kick-out strategy is more assured while the Dreadnots clubman is not afraid to help build the play from the back.
Put simply, Louth look a different proposition with Califf there. Harte has also done a good job in turning Bevan Duffy into a full-back and former forward Niall Sharkey into a front-footed centre-back, while Craig Lennon on the defensive flank has added blinding pace to the Louth counter-attack.
Midfielder Tommy Durnin has also won favour with the three-times All-Ireland winning manager.
A bit like Michael Murphy in Donegal, without Sam Mulroy, Louth are only half the team - at least in terms of scores as he has accounted for 54 per cent of Louth's League tally this season.
Mulroy was a thorn in Antrim's side last May in Haggardstown, scoring 2-2, but while the bustling forward is the mainstay of Louth, there are only eight players of that team that featured in last weekend's fine win over Fermanagh in Enniskillen.
There are fewer personnel changes in Antrim’s ranks since last May, and they’ve recovered well from their blip at home to Limerick, drawing with Laois and beating Wicklow and Longford.
Antrim are on an upward trajectory. So too are Louth. We’ll find out whose graph line is the more impressive in Ardee tomorrow and who can take another step towards Division Two football in 2023.