Planting trees, football IQs and the big little things: How Harte and Devlin have turned Louth around

Louth head to Croke Park on Sunday to face Dublin knowing they are just 70 minutes from a place in Division One. So much has changed since Mickey Harte and Gavin Devlin came in just ten days after stepping down from Tyrone. Cahair O’Kane explores why they are where they are…

Gavin Devlin and Mickey Harte have transformed Louth's fortunes. Picture by Sportsfile
Gavin Devlin and Mickey Harte have transformed Louth's fortunes. Picture by Sportsfile

PETER Fitzpatrick wasn’t waiting on the iron to cool.

Mickey Harte had just stepped down after almost two decades in charge of Tyrone.

Others with the same thoughts tip-toed around, gave him his space.

When they were ready for lifting the phone ten days later, Louth were announcing Harte as their new manager.

Fitzpatrick’s own ascension to the chair a year earlier was pivotal.

When he first met Mickey Harte about the job, he presented a bold vision. They’d have the best of everything, including players.

Having managed the team himself for four years a decade ago, taking them to a rare Leinster final, Fitzpatrick wanted to press on with plans for a new stadium and to be ambitious with what they could do on the field.

Harte had little or no hesitation. He had just turned 66 when his tenure in Tyrone ended.

It was one thing his enthusiasm being questioned but the constant tactical questioning during the final, often difficult, couple of seasons meant people were unsure if he could be successful again somewhere else that didn’t have the same quality of player.

He is long since vindicated on that front.

It helped that the three-time All-Ireland winning manager had family connections to the county. His late brother Pete had moved to Knockbridge after getting married to Eithne. Their sons Peter Bernard and Fergal are half-Louth, half-Tyrone.

It wasn’t just him that had to be persuaded though. Gavin Devlin has been his chief of staff for almost a decade now.

Since they took charge, the entire environment around Louth football has been altered.

Their training centre in Darver is just over a decade old but has undergone radical transformation in the past three years.

That will continue into the future.

Well aware of what it was like in Garvaghey, one of the first things Mickey Harte got them to do was plant trees around the place to try and minimise the effects of the centre’s chilly microclimate.

A wing of the building was renovated to house their senior teams. They built a huge changing room, added an indoor warm-up area. In the shower area, cryotherapy baths were added. The quality of food served to players was upgraded.

For years, players had been used to arriving to darkness, the hair standing on their arms with the cold.

The floodlights might not be on, the changing rooms might not be warm, the showers could be cold afterwards. It wasn’t every night but it happened. It doesn’t happen any more.

Individually, those things might seem insignificant.

But when you’re coming from where Louth were coming from, having just been relegated back to Division Four when Harte took over, it all matters.

In his most recent book, Devotions, Harte said how he felt “re-energised” by the change of scenery.

“By raising standards, we can develop the kind of culture inherent in all successful sides. The whole county should feel pride in the team,” he said.

The days Louth are training, Devlin is in Darver from the middle of the afternoon.

Out on the training field, they’ve worked hard at becoming a structured, organised outfit.

To be standing 70 minutes from a third successive promotion and a spot in Division One is remarkable in itself.

If they were able to achieve that in Croke Park against Dublin, their management’s nemesis from their time together in Tyrone, it would come close to matching the successes in their native county.

That Louth are where they are without Ciaran Byrne and Sam Mulroy, the closest things they have to household names, only solidifies the proof of overall improvement.

Night after night they work on the structure of their attacking play, their angles of running.

Louth have scored seven goals in the league, at least one in each of their six games.

What does it mean when they say, as Byrne did earlier this week, that ‘Horse’ sees things that others don’t?

An example. In his analysis of Cork, he showed the Louth players how they liked to drop very deep and that when they did, they became very man-orientated rather than marking zonally as other teams do.

They saw that as an opportunity to pull Cork’s defence around and create gaps. The players devour every word and follow the plan.

Ciarán Sloan’s continued conditioning work keeps them up to speed and former Monaghan ladies’ captain Sharon Courtney coming on board as the team’s nutritionist have made a difference.

Whereas in the past a nutritionist meant a talk every couple of months, Courtney is in Darver once a week for training, and in constant contact with players. The body composition of a host of players has changed dramatically.

None of this is unique to Louth. Top-end teams are all at it. The difference is that it’s new to Louth.

The perception is that they’re fitter than before. Yet the players feel it’s more working smarter than working harder.

It’s not so much fitness of the body as it is fitness of the mind.

They talk about how Devlin’s coaching on the field, and the video work they’ve done with him, has gradually improved their ‘football IQ’.

“You can be fit all day and making rubbish runs and not touching the ball. If you’re making 10 good runs, you’ll look fitter than a fella doing 50 runs and going nowhere,” says goalkeeper James Califf.

They pushed Derry to the wire in Ardee but having been three points up late on against Clare on the opening day, Louth still had no points from their first two games.

They’re used to that.

In Harte’s first game in charge in Division Four they lost to Antrim, but recovered to win promotion.

When they took one point from their opening two fixtures against Laois and Longford last year, topping Division Three seemed highly unlikely. Yet they did.

Since the Derry game they’ve beaten Limerick, Meath, Kildare and Cork. Any victory over Dublin would see them promoted on head-to-head record.

Having just beaten Meath, minds turned to Kildare. Mickey Harte quickly stripped them of any complacency.

He reminded them of what Kildare had done to them in last year’s championship, beating them by 16 points. This was revenge, pure and simple.

“We just didn’t want to be walked over and beaten into the group like we were last year, which was very, very humiliating for all of us,” Harte said after the game.

The academy squads are all being bussed down. Anything up to 10,000 fans could be down the road on Sunday.

Men and women will traipse down having not been in Headquarters since Joe Sheridan… well, you know that one.

A row over RTÉ’s failure to send a camera to any of their games so far offers an edge that their Tyrone generals know better than any how to play on.

Still nobody really gives Louth a chance.

Like everything else, that mindset is changing too.