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'We had to walk through disinfectant buckets in our boots... You weren't allowed meet up in groups'

JP Rooney and Colm Nally recall how the Wee County suffered from the foot and mouth disease.

THE GAA’S DECISION to suspend all activity until at least the end of the month evokes memories of a difficult period for many Louth people.

the-louth-team-before-the-match The Louth footballers in 2001. Source: Tom Honan/INPHO

This is not the first time that they’ve had to hit pause on their games. It’s not even the first time that this has happened to them in the Spring.

The foot and mouth crisis devastated Ireland’s agricultural industry in 2001. It was a disease which mainly affected cattle, pigs, sheep and goats. Some farms were decimated as animals were slaughtered to prevent the spread of infection, and the impact was greatly felt in Louth.

The Cooley Peninsula was declared an exclusion zone when an outbreak of the disease was uncovered in February of that year. The farming community suffered hugely, but there were also wider implications for their county’s hurling and football sides.

A number of stringent measures were put in place at the time, which included the suspension of National League games for the month of March. A decision was subsequently taken to prohibit Louth from coming back into the competition when it resumed.

At that time, Louth were motoring well in Division 1. A win over Kerry followed by a draw against Offaly gave the Wee County an impressive start to life in the top tier before their league campaign was shut down.

“There was a new buzz about the place,” former Louth footballer JP Rooney recalls of that time, having won the Division 2 title the previous season.

“Things were very much on the up with Louth and we were going well that season.”

Rooney’s team-mate Colm Nally recalls the great honour that Louth players felt after humbling Paídí Ó Sé’s reigning All-Ireland champions. 

But that sense of pride was soon replaced by anger as they were refused re-entry to the league when it got back underway. Instead, they were forced to wait until October for a relegation play-off tie against Donegal.

This was back in a time when the National League began in the winter time, meaning that it was almost an entire year before Louth’s 2000/2001 campaign eventually concluded. 

“We were basically booted out of the league,” says Nally.

“Tyrone were booted out as well and at the time, Tyrone and Dublin were struggling in Division 1. Kerry were relegated that year and we ended up playing a play-off the following October against Donegal. 

“It was just very topsy-turvy and wasn’t well organised.”

That time of inactivity forced the Louth team to be creative about their training methods.

Rooney’s club Naomh Mairtin found themselves in a similar scenario last week when the GAA announced a blanket ban for all collective training and matches to combat the Covid-19 situation.

The players began brainstorming ways they could continue training without violating the rules.

There was some initial chat of meeting in groups, which was swiftly dismissed in the interest of abiding by the social distancing guidelines.

But Rooney was able to draw on his 2001 experience to offer some advice to his club-mates.

“It was fairly harsh around here,” he explains when recalling his memories of living through the foot and mouth crisis.

jp-rooney-digital JP Rooney in action for Louth in 2001. Source: Patrick Bolger/INPHO

“You weren’t allowed to meet in groups of more than two or three at the time.

So training wise, I know I used to meet a few of the lads in Drogheda and we’d go to the beach. There were a few in mid-Louth who used to go to the Dunleer running track and they’d do their bit there. Wherever you could go because even travelling was affected.

“There wasn’t a lot of ball work.

We were on the beach in Seapoint and I suppose, well who was going to monitor it really? I remember you could see a head peeking out the odd time in the dunes and we were presuming it was just someone keeping an eye on us to make sure we were doing it [the training].”

The Louth footballers “wanted to get a crack at Division 1″ that year, according to Nally, and the players presented a few suggestions to achieve that. They offered to play their remaining games at neutral venues and were even willing to play them in the home grounds of their opponents. 

But it wasn’t to be.

“We felt we were let down by administration then,” says Nally.

“We did voice our concerns from the pitch but you’re never sure what goes on when these guys meet behind closed doors.

We were just discarded and thrown out and it was only from the players lobbying and giving out that we got this shot at redemption at playing Donegal.

“There was no thinking behind it. Louth were heavily penalised.

Louth did eventually get back on the pitch later that year in May.

They were paired with Longford in the opening round of the Leinster SFC, which they wanted to postpone.

Nally says that the team weren’t afforded sufficient time to train collectively and prepare for the provincial showdown. Their problems were further compounded by a lack of access to pitches.

“The pitches weren’t as good as they are today with floodlights and 3G pitches,” Nally remembers.

“There was none of that in 2001. We didn’t have a training base in Louth, we were relying on the goodwill of clubs and all the clubs in restricted zones weren’t releasing their pitches or anything. It was a really difficult time.

“I think it really affected the team going forward into the championship that year. 

We used to train in ALSAA [Sports Centre] in Dublin but we had to have disinfectant mats all over the dressing room. We had to walk through disinfectant buckets in our boots and all this sort of stuff before we could go out on the pitch.”

The summer clash with Longford went ahead as scheduled in Navan and Louth came up short by two points.

colm-nally-digital Colm Nally was the goalkeeper for Louth at the time. Source: Tom Honan/INPHO

“We were well fancied against Longford and Niall Sheridan and the Bardens (Paul and Enda) caused havoc,” says Rooney. “So that was a knockback.

“We were expecting to beat Longford and we didn’t fire that day. Maybe we overlooked it that way but I definitely think we put everything we could into place.”

The 2001 season saw the introduction of the qualifier system into the football competition. After that defeat to Longford, Louth recovered with wins over Tipperary and Offaly before bowing out of the All-Ireland championship after a narrow defeat to Westmeath.

The deceased Paddy Clarke was in charge of Louth for that turbulent season but was replaced by Paddy Carr by the time the league relegation play-off against Donegal came around.

Nally remembers Clarke as a compassionate mentor who kept in regular contact with all of the players throughout their enforced lay-off period earlier that year. 

“The one thing about Paddy Clarke was he was a great character and he had a great way about him.

You wouldn’t go a week without talking to him. He’d be touching base asking if you were doing particular work. He was a great man that way for contacting people and keeping morale, and looking at the positive side of things.”

Louth find themselves in familiar territory these days as their season grounds to a halt. But unlike 2001, everyone in the GAA is affected equally.

paddy-clarke-digital Paddy Clarke on the sideline for Louth. Source: INPHO

And of course, the scale is much different with the Covid-19 epidemic. While the livelihoods of farmers were at risk in 2001, there is a much greater human cost at stake today.

And everyone agrees that implementing a blanket ban was the safest option for the GAA to take. Nally is a coach with the Meath footballers these days, and while the outlook for the rest of the season remains unclear at this point, his only hope is that teams get enough time to prepare before their next competitive game.

He doesn’t want the mistakes of 2001 to hinder another team 19 years on.

“It was a difficult championship to prepare for [in 2001] because you were restricted in your training. Like I’d be very disappointed if the Meath team was asked to play a championship or league match without at least three weeks prep for it.

“That’s what happened to us.”

- Originally published at 07.00

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