Wayne Freeman is expecting Louth to face “an extraordinarily tough” Lidl NFL opener in Antrim on Sunday but insists his side must be targeting a victory to begin their promotion push.
The Kildare man takes charge of The Wee County for the first time competitively a week later than billed, with the points competition having got underway on Sunday, due to an uneven number (seven) competing in the bottom tier.
However, the Monasterevin native has impressed the Louth panel since succeeding Darren Bishop, with his energy, enthusiasm and organisation raising standards yet further as The Reds set about trying to add a league title to last year’s All-Ireland junior crown.
“We’d be taking a wrong attitude if we didn’t intend on winning it, but I think there’s four or five teams in Division Four that’ll be thinking exactly the same way,” Freeman told The Dundalk Democrat.
“I’m expecting an extraordinarily tough game in Antrim; a massive battle and we have to be ready for that, but everyone is just anxious to get on the field and to play now; we’ve been working very hard over the last number of weeks.
“I think everybody will feel the pressure in their first game. We will feel nerves and pressure for our first game, but we’ll be physically and mentally ready to go, there’s no doubt about that.”
Freeman named St. Mochtas’ Aoife Byrne as captain before Christmas, with Shannen McLaughlin (Clan na Gael) as deputy, and has quickly got to know the players that make up his 31-strong panel.
Newcomers include Holly Lambe-Sally (Geraldines) and Louise Byrne (Roche Emmets), with the manager hugely impressed by the efforts of his team to date, including during challenge matches against Down and Wicklow, who will both operate out of Division Three.
And he’s confident others can step up to fill the void left by 2019 captain Kate Flood, who’s set to feature for Fremantle in the Women’s AFL over the coming months.
“The squad is extremely competitive at the moment, we’re delighted with how training is going,” he added. “The attitude and workrate of the players is phenomenal. The drive is there and the new players added in have lifted the team, lifted the intensity and created a competitive buzz around training. There’s about five or six out of the squad from last year that have gone travelling or on their own way, so we’ve five or six new bodies in.
“With the 31 we have in the panel, we have a good idea of the strongest positions for each player. The difficulty will be putting out our best 15 and the five or six players who are going to be coming off the line, because training is going so well and players are so competitive in training. But it’s a fantastic headache to have.
“I think everybody has to take a step up. We’ve set standards as a management team and the players are taking them on board and really putting them into training. And we keep moving those standards because when you reach something, you’re never there, the standards can never drop. You can always improve and raise the bar.
“It doesn’t matter who comes in or out of the squad, you have to stand up and be more talismanic. Kate’s a fantastic footballer and we wish her the best of luck in Australia, and that goes for the others too, but we’ve replaced them with good footballers who are eager to play and improve.”
Freeman is very much a disciple of the “one game at a time” school of thought, but he accepts there is an added emphasis on getting off to a good start given there are no semi-finals in Division Four this year, with the top two going straight into the promotion decider.
“That adds a little bit more edginess to it and more bite, so we have to prepare properly for every single game and our focus is on winning every single game. But there’s no point at this stage in thinking about the top two places; there’s just no point.”
These counties have met regularly in league competition in recent years. Last season Louth emerged convincing winners in Cooley. However just weeks later Antrim caused a real shock as they came from being four points down deep in stoppage time to force extra time in the League semi final in Clones. The Saffron County dominated the additional 20 minutes to run out six point winners . The sides met for a third time in August again played at the iconic Monaghan venue in the All-Ireland semi final with the Wee County proving too strong for the northerners.
Down’s Gavin Finnegan is Sunday’s match referee.
Preview by Dermot Woods | Photos by Warren Matthews