IT is how any county with pretensions of a sustained championship campaign would wish to set out. A quiet Saturday evening in Tullamore overshadowed by a couple of blood and thunder local derbies the following afternoon. Laois face a buoyant Longford team stirred by a remarkable comeback against Westmeath, but their threat is transparent and there is no element of surprise. Liam Kearns would not have wanted it any other way.
It is fair to say that Kearns’ appointment as Mick O’Dwyer’s successor last September didn’t meet with universal support in Laois. There were those who felt former county stalwart Pat Roe was a more deserving choice. With the hindsight of a reasonable league campaign for Laois and a decidedly ordinary one for Roe’s Offaly, the early indications are that the Laois County Board acted decisively in getting the right man.
More than their displays during the league, it is easy to see a promising pattern emerging under Kearns’ leadership. It is important not to forget how the 2006 championships ended for Laois: tame surrender against Dublin in the Leinster semi-final, meek capitulation against Mayo in the All-Ireland quarter-final. The general consensus was that Laois moved forward under O’Dwyer, but it was clear last summer that his time was up and he did not leave the county on an upward curve.
The problem wasn’t obviously personnel. Whatever team Kearns sends out in Tullamore in six days is unlikely to differ substantially from the one that came up short last summer. Though Laois, in recent times at least, have not been known for their physicality, it was still shocking to see a team prepared by O’Dwyer so easily brushed aside by Dublin. Under Kearns, few are expecting a repeat.
A week ago Kearns brought the squad to his native Tralee for a challenge against Kerry and a seemingly innocuous occasion turned into a bruising encounter that, according to those present, was distinguished more by the occasional free-for-all than for the football played. Laois lost the game to a flurry of late Kerry goals, but held their own physically against a side that is currently the strongest in the country.
Avoid the kind of indiscipline that blighted good Laois sides of previous generations and few would argue that Kearns is on the wrong path. Outside of Kerry, Tyrone and possibly Galway, no county has been blessed with such an infusion of talent over the last decade. But their success in harnessing it towards senior success has had mixed results at best. The breakthrough Leinster championship triumph of 2003 is a greying memory now.
Judging by recent selections, Kearns is anxious to create a solid spine through his team. Playing Tom Kelly at full-back could potentially rob the half-back line of a vital presence, but Darren Rooney has been a commanding presence at centre-back and the Laois backline should be sturdier as a result. The switch of Brian McCormack from the forwards to wing-back had the look of a masterstroke during the league. Joe Higgins’ attacking instincts will be better served away from the full-back line.
The real gamble Kearns will take is in the switch of Brendan Quigley to full-forward, where he operated well against Kerry and in another recent challenge in Roscommon. Kearns knows that for all the rejuvenated form shown by Beano McDonald and Ross Munnelly, without a ball winner near the square Laois will never score enough to win big games. In the quarter-final replay against Mayo last year, Laois managed a desultory five points from play, an indication of their scoring problems all summer.
If Quigley is a success up front and Chris Conway can develop into an effective playmaker at No 11, Laois know they have the scoring forwards to worry any team. Consider too that they should have the likes of Donie Brennan, Colm Parkinson, Pauric McMahon, Paul Lawlor and Kevin Fitzpatrick in reserve. Few teams in the country are served with such a plentiful supply of alternatives.
It is on the field, though, that the biggest changes will be noted. According to long-standing observers there is an aggression about Laois now that wasn’t in evidence under O’Dwyer. “There’s a one-in all-in attitude about them,” says one. “They’re not afraid to get stuck in. You won’t see Laois fellas ducking away this year.”
It spells bad news for Longford next Saturday. In normal circumstances Luke Dempsey’s side would have fancied their chances against a team that, like themselves, was full of light, skilful players. If Kearns’ vision of a new Laois is to be realised, victory should be outside Dempsey’s grasp on Saturday.
Laois v Longford,
Saturday, Live RTE 2, 6.45
Filed under: Laois Football