LOUTH’S emergence into the bright lights of a first Leinster final for the first time in half a century is a remarkable story all in itself, but it is one accompanied by a collection of equally eye-catching individual tales.
Chief among them must be Mark Brennan’s. The Mattock Rangers man first joined the county panel at the end of 2005 and managed a few runs under manager Paddy Carr, before making the breakthrough onto the team under Eamonn McEneaney.
Described at the time as an “inspirational” centre-forward, Brennan won a Division Two league medal in 2006 and featured in the side that took Tyrone to a replay in the All-Ireland qualifiers next year.
By the time Louth knocked on the back door a year later, however, Brennan was in the USA having been one five players who refused to board the team bus after a Leinster championship defeat to Wexford in Croke Park.
“There was a lot made out of it,” Brennan said. “That’s what happened. We didn’t get on the bus, things didn’t go right and I just needed a bit of space. I think people took up wrong opinions and it just left me out in the cold after that.”
Somehow, Louth managed to close ranks after the quintet of refuseniks were dropped from the panel. A qualifier run that brought wins over Limerick and Kildare was only ended by a two-point loss to Cork.
Brennan watched it all from afar, as he did the 2008 and 2009 seasons, and it was only when Peter Fitzpatrick assumed control from McEneaney late last year that the 26-year found himself back in favour.
Regrets? Not even a few.
“No, at the time I went, I was happy to go. I went to America, had three months over there, loved it over there and then when I came back I won another championship with my club.”
His timing, he admits, has been impressive.
Louth have notched a trio of wins against Longford, Kildare and Westmeath to set up this Sunday’s provincial decider against Meath and Brennan feels there has been a number of contributing factors for their new-found success.
“It’s been a bit of luck, really. We have been there or thereabouts the last couple of years but just didn’t have any luck. This year, everything just seemed to go right. Maybe it’s the new management and new style of training and attitude around the county as well, but the main thing is you need a bit of luck. Even after the Longford match, nobody in our camp even thought we’d be in a Leinster final.
“We were all psyched up and thought we would play well against Longford but nothing seemed to go right.
“We knew Kildare were coming in on a high pedestal and we could sneak under the radar. Everything seemed to go right for us in Navan and we’ve just gone from there.”
If he has seen any particularly huge changes, it has been in the attitudes of the players. Gone are the days when they were happy simply to be part of a Louth team that could come away from a season with their pride intact.
“Nobody wants to be in it for themselves, everybody is in it together. Some years Louth teams were turned over, they didn’t want to win it that much and thought a good performance would do them.
“They’d be known around the county for playing well and getting so close but now everyone wants to win. They don’t want to be known as losers or nearly men. We all want to win.”
Fitzpatrick’s unique brand of infectious enthusiasm has already worked wonders in a county that had long learned to think of itself as second-class citizens in football terms, and other voices have pushed them along too.
Former All-Ireland-winning manager, Brian McEniff, has been drafted in to lend some words of advice. So, too, has Peter McDonnell who spent two seasons with neighbours in Armagh.
“Peter came in and took a few training sessions and he’s kind of been there with us ever since. He has a good insight into football and everyone listens to him. If we had a bad game, Peter Fitzpatrick would bring Peter McDonnell down the next Tuesday night to sort us out.
“He was in the dressing-room after the Westmeath match making sure we didn’t get carried away and we weren’t just happy enough getting to a Leinster final. Brian is another man with a load of knowledge of the game so it is great to have somebody like him around giving advice.”
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