As Laois’s glorious 2003 season fast becomes a fading memory, Dermot Crowe wonders if their golden generation are doomed to be remembered as nearly men
NEARING the championship match against Dublin last summer, Liam Kearns embarked on a spot of interior decorating, covering the dressing room walls with old newspaper cuttings that pilloried the team he had inherited. Laois’s 14-point whipping by Dublin in 2006 presaged a storm of unflattering comment in the media. What better way to gee up the lads, Kearns reckoned, than an exhibition of headlines telling them that they were a beaten docket.
Laois were pummelled in 2006, prompting Mick O’Dwyer to wrest control of the team’s physical preparation from Gerry Loftus before the qualifier against Tyrone. They restored some pride with three straight wins, and were close to booking a rematch with Dublin in the All-Ireland semi-final when Mayo decked them in a replay. Kearns saw Dublin, though, as the burning unresolved issue.
In his days in charge of Limerick he had to deal with another great oppressor, Kerry, and when 2007 wheeled around he watched Laois lose an O’Byrne Cup final to Dublin and worried that the significance of it would far outweigh the value of the competition. By then they were well into a weights programme devised by Eddie Jackman, who worked previously with Carlow footballers, Tipperary hurlers and is a certified Irish Rugby Football Union (IRFU) conditioning coach. From October to February players were asked to do five nights a week in the gym, with two weekly dates set aside for collective training on the field.
Before the opening round of the championship against Longford the expectation of a more strident physical challenge from Laois had taken root. Following some challenge matches word circulated of a tougher approach and Luke Dempsey wondered aloud if the referee in the championship match between Laois and Longford might take stock. Kearns replied that it was all a myth, someone adding two and two and getting five.
In refereeing, perception can be nine tenths of the law but Laois survived, beating Longford and then Wexford. The test would always be Dublin: they began the rematch looking intent on reparation but after 20 minutes Dublin had them back in their box and by the end the hard truth was another convincing defeat. Jackman and Kearns parted company soon after and this year they have a new physical trainer. With all the success at underage and the highpoint of 2003, where has it all gone wrong?
Mick O’Dwyer encountered a problem with attitude, players not doing what he told them to. He cited injuries and bad luck. Kearns has also bemoaned the lack of a clear run from injuries in his first year in charge, claiming that their situation was not unlike Tyrone’s but received a good deal less sympathy. Having lost Joe Higgins, Tom Kelly and Fergal Byron to retirement over recent months, and seen Chris Conway, Gary Kavanagh and Kevin Fitzpatrick also leave the panel, he is not short of excuses before a ball is even kicked in 2008.
But it doesn’t wash with everyone. “I think too many times last year Laois were making excuses,” says Leo Turley, the former county forward. “In the Dublin game I felt we did not have a Plan B when Dublin got a couple of goals. For their killer goal in the second half Joe Higgins was left isolated on Conal Keaney.”
After last year’s championship Byron, 33, decided he had had enough. Kearns dissuaded him from retiring the previous year, and he had seriously considered leaving in 2002 after a dreadful defeat by Meath, so there was no sense of getting out ahead of time. One of the Laois players recently asked him to look at the county panel celebration photograph from 2003 and count how many players were still involved today. He could not pass ten.
He realises that the number paints a distorting impression of the changes. The wider panel is always in a state of flux and several players are accounted for by natural retirement or injury. But in his wake, Higgins and Kelly, 2003 All-Stars, have bowed out ahead of their 30th birthdays. More have left than could be considered healthy or normal. It means Laois face into a league campaign in Division 1 committed to experimentation and with serious consequences if the new blend doesn’t function. As Turley says: “The league could be a painful experience.”
Byron reckons the championship could see as many as half a dozen new faces and both he and Turley are immediately reminded of the late 1990s when Laois last went for broke with a big splash on younger players. After taking Dublin to a replay in 1999 the team went out in the first round to Westmeath in 2000 and a view formed that too many experienced players had been discarded prematurely.
In Carlow they have resisted the temptation to pick from last year’s minor side that pushed Laois all the way in the Leinster final. Instead those players are siphoned through the U21 squad until deemed ready, or not, for senior football. Laois have tended to rush them through and Kearns needs to strike the right balance, a delicate operation.
Whatever momentum Laois gained in their historic year of 2003 is now well squandered. “I was talking to one of the lads who played with Laois recently,” says Turley, “and he was wondering whether we would be remembered for winning Leinster in 2003 or losing three out of four Leinster finals in the period. Is that the Golden Age gone or will it re-emerge with these young lads?
“The guys who won in 2003 were the culmination of seven or eight years. People forget that. I don’t think we were ready to go much farther in 2003 but that Leinster title could certainly have been built on. In the years since then that desire has waned and players began to feel that was as far as they could get.”
Kearns didn’t escape criticism in year one as the impatience spilled over. Former player Mick Lawlor said he should be replaced and a delegate at a county board meeting slammed the team’s tactical approach after they lost to Dublin. Kearns always had the board’s backing, however, and is there for three years. He finds his challenge has increased. This year he’ll be looking for a new goalkeeper, fullback, possibly a midfielder if Brendan Quigley is used at full-forward, and a centre-forward.
Laois won the All-Ireland minor title in 2003 and could have won the last two All-Ireland U21 titles, narrowly beaten in the semi-finals and final. This has turned them into a Gaelic football version of Galway hurlers — seeming unable to bridge the gap to senior prosperity. But Byron drives a hole in the argument. “I think it’s a myth that you automatically achieve success if you have good underage teams. Look at Kerry. Certainly in Laois the players are there but to make it at senior it takes a completely different player. It is a different type of football altogether. Things young lads get away with at minor level won’t cut it at senior.
“The national league is going to be really important. It will determine how things go in the championship. He will have to blood a lot of new lads. I can’t see the lads who retired going back. I know sometimes lads change their minds but I can’t see that happening here. You are looking at maybe six championship debutantes; that’s a huge amount.”
Kearns has changed his backroom team completely, with new selectors in Andy Shortall and Dermot Murphy, and a new trainer in John Doran, who has served two previous terms with the county. Young players like Cahir Healy, a likely replacement for Higgins, Mark Timmons, a fullback candidate, and John O’Loughlin, last year’s minor star, are vying for promotion.
In an interview with the Leinster Express recently, County Chairman Brian Allen zeroed in on the U21 team as their best hope of success this year. The low expectations of the senior team, who begin the league in Galway next Sunday, will suit Kearns down to the ground.
Filed under: Laois Football