Croke Park has long carried a reputation as a stadium which lays bare any weaknesses a team may hope to keep concealed, but Semple Stadium has tarnished enough reputations down the years to be hitched to that same wagon.
More often than not it has been hurlers who have been exposed under the microscope of the iconic Thurles venue, but it proved to be an equally unforgiving ground for a quartet of sides during the course of the 2015 football championship.
Waterford and Louth got schooled by Tipperary before Tipp themselves were taught a lesson by Tyrone. And then there was Cork’s humiliating exit to a Kildare side that was itself subsequently pulverised by Kerry at HQ in the quarter-finals.
Louth’s was the biggest defeat of them all though. A 23-point scutching to Tipp. Manager Colin Kelly was less than a year in the saddle at the time, but he knew leaving the ground that evening that the road ahead of him and his team made for a long, hard and arduous climb.
“We were like a ship lost at sea, really. We had no pre-season work done. We were trying to implement gameplans when lads hadn’t the fitness levels. You’re trying to cajole performances out of fellas, speaking about the badge and what it means, but you have to be well-prepped.”
True. Players are no daws.
Passion and loyalty are no substitute for basic building blocks, so Kelly rounded his squad up early for 2016, roped in a few more from the club scene and started by working on their fitness levels. He was rewarded by a group that embraced the work ethic and culture from the off.
Kelly could see it as far back as the O’Fiach and O’Byrne Cups and the early stages of their Division Four campaign confirmed what he suspected when they yanked two points from the fire in Waterford when two points and a man down near the end and facing a driving wind and rain. Their only loss was by a point to Leitrim in Carrick-on-Shannon when they were abysmal, but the character of a group shone through in their next game when they produced what Kelly described as a near-perfect performance to beat Carlow by 13 in Dr Cullen Park.
“It’s a pleasure to work with them and they have the possibility of progressing even further,” he said.
The league campaign ended with a victory over Antrim in Croke Park. It was a first appearance at the ground for many of them as this is a new generation from the 2010 version that was robbed of that Leinster title. The Brian Whites and Paddy Keenans are long gone. Kelly has one 30-year old in his midst and a core of seven or eight who are 25, 26 or 27. The rest are 23 and under. The full-back, centre-back, one of the midfielders and his full-forward are all 21. Brian Byrne and Eoin Lavery, two other starters, are only on the cusp of their twenties.
Kelly is a realist. He talks of a return to the days half-a-decade ago and when he was a Louth player when they were a good, solid Division Two team rather than competing for Leinster titles, but securing a second win in a matter of months against Carlow this Saturday is their world for now. It’s only five years since Louth celebrated a Division Three title win and mourned a championship loss to this weekend’s opponents in the space of a few weeks. That the loss happened at the same Portlaoise venue only adds to the determination not to lose sight of the here and now.
“Carlow ambushed us in the championship so there is history. Hopefully it doesn’t repeat. There is nothing to suggest complacency but you don’t see that until the day.” It’s been a season of small steps. Tomorrow is another.