Finnegan's wake-up call
November 30, 2008
It was hardly a year to remember for Ray Finnegan and his colleagues on the Louth senior football panel. Looking back on the disappointing events of 2008, the St Patricks clubman - one of the Wee County's most consistent performers in the twelve months gone by - says the below-par displays should serve as a wake-up call for the Reds and accepts that a much-improved showing is required in '09.
The coming year is a big one for Louth football. It's the fourth act of the management team's five-year tenure and many would suggest that - after a lightning start - the Wee County have taken backward steps in Years II and III. Thus, the time has come for the Reds to answer their critics, to reward the faith and patience that has been invested in them by returning to kind of form that rattled Tyrone in 2006. It's a defining season in many ways - one that will go a long way towards showing whether or not the current project is working.
Ray Finnegan was one of the few Louth players to emerge from the 2008 intercounty season with his reputation wholly intact. The Pats man ranked as arguably the Wee County's most dependable performer, but he concedes that the team as a whole - including himself - must improve. Looking forward to 2009, he realises it's potentially a watermark year for the current crop:
"It's an important year," he accepts. "After the disappointment of last year, we need to get back on track. Things didn't go according to plan in '08, and it would be great to get off to a winning start next year. We were indifferent in 2008 and that's something we're going to have to work hard on fixing. We have to play with more confidence but we also need to work harder and find a greater level of consistency in our play."
Is it harsh though to write '08 off as a total flop? Remember, the championship games were against none other than four-in-a-row Leinster champions Dublin and three-times-Sam-Maguire-winners-this-decade Tyrone. Surely those two would hammer most teams in the country, let alone the smallest one "They are probably two of the best teams in the country, so they were definitely two hard games but, at the same time, it was very disappointing from our point of view that we didn't play as well as we can in either match.
"Maybe it's the wake-up call that we needed. Those two results show us quite clearly that we're not doing as well as we could. We started well against Dublin and stayed with them into the second half, but we were very disappointing otherwise and we have to improve."
Three (going on four) years into the much-talked-about five-year plan, it is too early to judge the merits or otherwise of the current management. But would it be fair to suggest that the first three years have not gone as smoothly as had been anticipated? "The first year was definitely the best," says Ray. "We got some silverware [Division Two] and we pushed Tyrone all the way in the qualifiers. It was always going to be a hard act to follow that. We had an encouraging run in the qualifiers in 2007, but last year was a big disappointment, not just in the championship but also in the league.
"Our aim has always been a Leinster final and that's still the case."
Are Louth still capable of making the last two in the province, despite their recent tumble down the rankings? "I definitely think the team is still there. The players are good enough. We just have to believe in ourselves and put in the performances. We didn't do it on the big day last year, so we have to learn from that and get it right in 2009."
With all respect to Carlow, the Barrowsiders constitute a somewhat easier opening-round match than Dublin. They will be up for the Parnell Park clash for sure and have been boosted by the return of Luke Dempsey as manager, but is this a draw that the Wee County welcome? "It's still going to be tough," Ray cautions. "I'm sure Carlow will be looking at the draw after our recent form and saying they have an easy draw and fancying their chances of doing something in Leinster this year. I expect both sides to come out fighting because it's a big opportunity for both of us. Hopefully we can take that chance."
The year will begin in early January with the formalities of the O'Byrne Cup before things really kick off when the 2009 national football league commences. After a series of narrow defeats last time around, Louth find themselves in Division Three once more and they are regarded as complete outsiders to emerge from this section. How important is it to gain promotion to a higher division? "We have to give it a go. Last year, we were too inconsistent and our form changed from one game to another. We played very well against Longford, for example, and then the following week against Sligo at Dowdallshill we were poor and we were fortunate to get a result. That's not good enough, really. We have to keep the performances coming and we need to play more consistently."
A good league run would provide the perfect pre-championship tonic. Imagine the confidence and conviction the players would show against Carlow if they were after achieving promotion to Division Two! Therefore, it is clearly imperative that Eamonn McEneaney's charges hit the ground running this time and take as much as possible from the league. Ideally, a team wants to be looking to hold its form in the knockout, rather than trying to find its form "If you do well in the league then you can carry more belief into the championship," Ray continues. "It makes a big difference if you are playing well going into the championship. We need to make the most of the league games and get our confidence going." Has a lack of confidence been a problem in the past? "It's hard to say. To be honest, going into those games against Dublin and Tyrone last year, we genuinely felt that we had as good a chance as anybody on the day. We just didn't play for some reason."
Are performances over-analysed then? Surely all teams have good and bad days "That's true. Having said that, we've had more bad days than good ones recently and we have to look at that and accept that we're not doing well enough. Louth have always had great support on the big day and we had tremendous backing against Dublin in Croke Park. Unfortunately, we let the supporters down on the day. We know we have to improve and that's what we'll be trying to do in 2009."
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