Despite a painful league campaign that ended with relegation to Division 4, Louth did rack up some considerable tallies. Critically, though, they shipped more than any other team in the division, with an average concession of more than 16 points a game.
That turned a promising start of two wins from the opening three games to four consecutive losses, including two-point defeats by subsequent champions Armagh, and Limerick.
“We struggled in the middle third of the field and we struggled defensively as a group,” says Kelly. “We suffered our fate because of that, I feel, so, that’s what we’re working on now, to try and change.”
Sunday’s Leinster championship clash with Westmeath will reveal whether progress has been made, but Kelly understands that it is about fine margins when trying to maintain an attacking threat while being tighter at the other end of the pitch.
“People talk about defensive styles and everything else, but, really and truly, if you haven’t a good defence, you have no platform to go on. So, you can understand where people are coming from with defensive systems. For me, it’s a balancing act. It’s trying to get it right between defence and attack. That’s where we fell by the wayside throughout the league.
“Your individuals have to be good to implement the system. Which comes first? You can have the best system in the world if the players haven’t the technical ability to play it. So, for us, it’s about getting the balance right, that we’ve the skill-set to do what we need to do and progress from there. That’s what we’re working towards.”
This process is taking place under a backdrop of crippling emigration in recent years. The squad is unrecognisable from the one that was robbed of a Leinster title in 2010, but the turnover has been cataclysmic since last year.
“You have to take it on the chin. The people that count understand. There is some negativity around the place from an element of supporters who still believe that Leinster finals are achievable, and: ‘Why aren’t we going to Croke Park and beating Dublin?’ But the reality of it is that the heart has been ripped out of the team and that’s no disrespect to the young lads that are coming in. Transformation takes time. We’ve lost seven starters in fellas like Paddy Keenan, Shane Lennon, Andy McDonnell, Brian White, John O’Brien, Mick Fanning, Ray Finnegan… fellas of that calibre. You’re talking about midfielders, centre-back, full-forward… the whole spine of your team.
“You can dwell on it, and be negative or you can get on with the job and that’s what we’ve done. We’ve tried to be as positive as we can and not accept second best. Unfortunately we weren’t good enough in the National League, but now it’s about righting the wrongs, so it will be a big test for us.
“We can’t look beyond Westmeath. Someone asked me earlier on if Dublin were unbeatable in Leinster. That’s not even our fight. For us, it’s about Westmeath. We need to get over that challenge first.”
Kelly believes in the players he has brought through, but knows that they need time. Louth could do more, he feels, to develop emerging talent but victory on Sunday would be a huge boost for the county.
“It was never going to be a one-year gig. We have to change our mindset as a county, where we want to go with this. We have to identify talent and say: ‘Where’s our next Paddy Keenan coming from?’ I’m not saying we don’t have one within the group, but we have to start getting a conveyor belt up. I think we fell down underage. Everybody alludes to the development squads, but development squads only get them to 18. There’s a long time from 18 to 21 and that’s where we’re falling down. Okay, we’re not competing at Leinster minor championships and we haven’t done for a long time.
“We have a decent minor team this year and, hopefully, they can break the trend, can go and be successful. It would be great for the county. But the transition from 17 to 20, we’re really falling there. That’s where we have to bridge the gap to start to get up to contesting Leinster semi-finals, climb the divisions of the National League.
“One championship win would do wonders for these lads. You can’t underestimate the confidence it would give. And that’s what we’re working towards.”