After the most depressing year in Laois football in recent times, it’s time to get back to what we all know best
Big Laois games in Croke Park are all but a distant memory and this year’s summer has been defined by an unmerciful hammering in Tullamore and a damp squib of a championship exit in Newry. Whatever about the quality of the Laois SFC, at least it should be competitive.
It’s hard to know if any competition anywhere is as tricky to predict. While Portlaoise deservedly start as favourites for the championship, the chasing pack are so tightly bunched behind them that championship challengers could as easily find themselves fighting relegation as marching behind the band on county final day.
Just look at the last few years. Three years ago Ballyroan-Abbey and Arles-Killeen squared off in the county final but within 12 months Ballyroan were on their way to intermediate and a further year on Arles-Killeen were clinging on to their senior status in a foul-mouthed, bad-tempered affair against Clonaslee-St Manman’s. It has worked the other way too. Timahoe went from relegation candidates to county finalists from October 2007 to October 2008 but if their league form this year is anything to go by, it wouldn’t be surprising if they went back as quickly as they improved.
It promises to be another interesting championship. Portlaoise are going for three titles in a row for the first time since the mid 80s and the dying embers of their golden era team. It’s a significant landmark to be chasing and one that should be enough to keep their motivation up throughout the championship. Yet we reckon they’re vulnerable and that Mountmellick could well send them stumbling this weekend. It will be up to someone else of course to deliver the knockout blow but history has shown (as recently as 2006 when O’Dempsey’s beat Portlaoise twice) that as soon as they’re on the back foot that they’re there for the taking.
They’re definitely without Colm Parkinson who has transferred to Parnell’s in Dublin while Cahir Healy is also away at the moment. That’s their best attacker and best defender. For all the talent they have in the club, they don’t have anyone to replace players of that calibre. Add in the fact that Zach Tuohy will miss part of the championship as he chases his Australian dream and you have a team that is only a shadow of the side that won the last two championships. If there isn’t a team in Laois capable of beating them then it’s a sad state of affairs. Yet it says a lot about their depth of talent that they have won the last two leagues and are in this year’s final. Championship is a different story though and we feel that they’ll come up short at some stage this year.
So who will win it then? Stradbally have always been in the top three and if Portlaoise slip, then they won’t be too far away. Tradition and their list of big-name players mean St Joseph’s can’t be written off either; they’ve been jinxed with injuries in the last couple of seasons but on any given day they could beat any of the teams out there. Whether they can sustain a run of form throughout the campaign is the issue though.
The two we can see going the distance are two of the newer kids on the block: Mountmellick and Arles-Killeen. Mountmellick have been some distance off Portlaoise in the last two semi-finals but they’ve a young, improving, team and if they can beat Portlaoise then they’ll take a bit of stopping. But with the competition so open, the chances are that the team that does stop Portlaoise mightn’t necessarily go the distance themselves.
Killeen are an interesting one. Although they completely collapsed in last year’s championship, in the two previous years they were in the final and semi-final. This time they could go all the way. In Nicky McGrath they have a manager that is a proven winner at club level with Kilmacud Crokes but on the field they have the makings of a championship-winning team too. In Michael Leigh, they have one of the best keepers in the county, in Shane Julian and Paul McDonald two of the best defenders. And then there’s that forward line. Is there a defence out there that can stop Donie Kingston and Donie Brennan and Brian McDonald and Jason Enright? Some backline might keep some of those big names quiet but it’s hard to know if any team has the manpower to mute them all.
Kingston gives them a new dimension that they didn’t have before and, if he’s in prime condition, he can bring them all the way. That both he and Donie Brennan will feel they were hard done by by the county management will only serve as further motivation to prove their worth on the local scene. If McGrath and his selectors can create a siege mentality that the world is against them, then their talent and their attitude could be a brilliant combination.
Two other teams that might ruffle a few feathers are Emo and Graiguecullen. Under club legend Gabriel Lawlor, Emo are in great shape and while they mightn’t have enough to win the championship, they are well capable of reaching the last four. Graigue are dangerous opposition for anyone too: with a young team they started well last year but if they can keep their heads they could hang around for a while.
At the other end of the scale the battle to hold on to senior status will be just as interesting. No team is above it, as proven by the fall of Ballyroan and Graiguecullen. Portarlington have survived in the last two years by beating the team that eventually made the drop and if they play like they did against Emo in the ACFL Division 2 final, then their long stay in the senior championship could be over. It would be bad for Laois football if a town like Portarlington were to be relegated but any team relegated can’t have any complaints; all they need to do is win one game out of four. In that context the first round of games is crucial as the winners there are safe. Ballylinan, Crettyard and The Heath could easily find themselves in trouble while if Timahoe lose to Emo, they could be in bother too.
When it comes down to it though, the championship won’t be remembered for who goes down, rather who is celebrating in O’Moore Park in October. Portlaoise start as favourites but the three-in-a-row will prove illusive and, powered by Beano and the two Donies, Arles-Killeen can be the last men standing.
Semi-finalists: Arles-Killeen, Mountmellick, Stradbally and Emo
- Leinster Express