When Mickey Harte last came up against Stephen Cluxton in championship football, the Parnell’s netminder walked away with the Sam Maguire Cup.
That was the 2018 All-Ireland SFC final when Dublin won their fourth of a six-in-a-row of All-Ireland titles on a 2-17 to 1-14 scoreline, with Cluxton successful with 29 of 31 (94 per cent) of kickouts.
That was the era during which much of the analysis of Dublin centred on “cracking” the goalkeeper’s restarts, with little else talked about given how waterproof they were across the pitch.
Harte has since finished up with that Tyrone team and taken over the reins with Louth, returning them to a first Leinster final since 2010 — the day of Joe Sheridan’s winning ‘try’ for Meath.
The change in the Wee County during these past two and a half seasons has been quite incredible. They have won 16, lost eight, and drawn one of their 25 league and championship games during that time.
From being relegated to Division 4 just before Harte’s arrival, they ended the 2023 league 11th overall (third in Division 2) in the ladder.
Louth’s leader understands taking a team to the promised land. Tyrone had never been to the summit of football until he broke new ground in 2003, and twice more they stood above the rest.
Harte is facing into his tenth provincial final — including replays — but they meet a Dublin side that has won 16 of the last 17 Leinster titles. Dessie Farrell has summoned the kitchen sink this season with former manager Pat Gilroy in his backroom set-up, 2015 and 2019 Footballers of the Year Jack McCaffrey and Cluxton on board, and All Star Paul Mannion also into the mix.
Having come up short in last year’s All-Ireland semi-final to a scud-missile free from Kerry’s Sean O’Shea, it amounts to a significant cavalry to call upon, not to mention Con O’Callaghan has returned to fitness.
In terms of threats, the Dubs are well-stacked with O’Callaghan 1-9 (0-3 frees, 0-1 mark), Colm Basquel 1-6, Ciaran Kilkenny 1-5, Mannion 0-6 (0-1 free), and Lee Gannon 1-1 to the fore across the wins over Laois and Kildare.
They have won their last five championship meetings with Louth going back to 2003 by an average of 14.4 points, with the handicap resting at an enticing -9.
The question is whether we will see the capital side that trounced Laois when totting up 4-30, or the one that eked past Kildare by 0-14 to 0-12. Given their presence in Division Two of the league this year and some patchy performances therein, there is a sense they could be caught by an ambush this weekend.
Joe Kernan, who claimed Armagh’s maiden All-Ireland title win in 2002, has been impressed by the longevity of Harte — two years his senior at 71 — and his stewardship of the Wee County.
“He has done a great job with Louth and they were one of those counties that were on a downward spiral,” says iconic manager Kernan.
“I know his strength and conditioning coach, Ciaran Sloan. I had him with Crossmaglen and Ulster and the Irish (International Rules) team, and I congratulated him on the physique and fitness levels of Louth.
“If you look at them running, they’re like the top teams in the country so all the hard work has been done by the backroom team and Mickey has put belief into them.
“They were with Dublin for long spells (in the Division Two game at Croke Park, losing 0-16 to 1-6) and I think that game will have done them the world of good.
“Now Dublin are going to go to the next level but hopefully Louth can stay in the game as long as possible.
“They have some great young players, they’re fit, they’re determined, they believe in what they’re doing, so I think this could be one of the better Leinster finals from the last 15 years.”
Half a century has passed since Louth last beat Dublin in championship football. A Mulroy was a key man that day in 1973 and it’s likely another will be key if it is to happen again.
Jimmy Mulroy was five months into his first term as manager back then in a game where Damien Reid helped himself to six points, and this time much of the scoring hopes will rest on the shoulders of Sam Mulroy.
The dynamic and silken-footed forward scored 0-9 when Naomh Mairtin won their maiden county title in 2020 as lockdown gripped the country. Jim McGuinness was involved with the ‘Jocks’ for that season, and watched on via video stream as history was made against Ardee St Mary’s.
It is likely that Louth will need a couple of goals to win this game but the stats suggest that is unlikely given they have failed to find the next in their seven most recent championship meetings.
Allied to that, Dublin’s last defeat in the Leinster final was in 2001 when they faced Meath, and they have not lost a final since Cluxton took over between the posts a season later.
This will be the 57th Dublin-Louth championship game — having met for the first time in 1889 — with the Dubs on top on 37 occasions, the Wee County 13, and six draws across the previous 56.
If a shock was ever on the cards, this could be the year. Farrell is trying to find a winning formula between gallant youth and fading superstars — some players have it in the head, others in the legs, but is the balance of both there to get to the top once more?
Louth have not claimed a Leinster title since 1957, and it may well be Harte’s greatest achievement if red ribbons adorn the Delaney Cup at the final whistle. Perhaps this time he will “crack” the Cluxton kickout to do it.
Breaking Dublin’s stranglehold won’t happen easily, so Farrell’s troops by 4-6 points at 15/4 may well be the right call.
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