McNulty's men go out to win, not to be liked
LAOIS footballers can relate to the Millwall FC supporters' theme song 'No-one likes us, we don't care,' and as long as they remain in the championship, that's fine by manager Justin McNulty.
On Saturday night, the O'Moore County men came dangerously close to committing hara-kiri against a dogged Leitrim side at Carrick-on-Shannon, but almost despite themselves, Laois emerged intact to extend their campaign by at least another week.
They kicked 18 wides, many of them from eminently scoreable positions; they trailed in the wake of their Division 4 opponents for almost half an hour before gaining parity with a Colm Kelly point in the 52nd minute; and they got lucky with a key refereeing decision late in the game.
It wasn't breathtaking stuff in terms of quality but there was a fascination in witnessing a potential upset by underdogs Leitrim against a Laois side that was big on effort but short on execution.
Laois manager McNulty admitted, particularly as the wide count mounted, that he wondered at one stage "maybe this isn't our night" but he hailed the composure of the players who finally got the job done.
"They kept digging deep and our guys showed courage and played as a team. That's the most encouraging thing. We know we have to increase our performance ten-fold if we're going to compete at a high level next week," McNulty said.
"It's been tough for the team this last number of months. They've been knocked from every angle, every quarter, all over the country and in the media.
"(Even) in their own supporters there's no belief in them, but they've turned a corner.
"They realise that they've got to take control, take responsibility for their own performance and not mind what happens outside of their control."
McNulty was full of praise for Leitrim, echoing the view of all who witnessed the game, but for home goalie Cathal McCrann the kudos were bittersweet.
McCrann had a role in two important moments: the Laois goal and a late controversy which clinched the game for McNulty's men.
The 'keeper had dealt capably with a few shots and high balls into his zone of influence in the first half, but got caught under a high ball lofted in by MJ Tierney in the 36th minute.
McCrann jumped but failed to hold the ball under pressure from Padraig Clancy and Gary Walsh of Laois. It broke to Conor Boyle, who gratefully accepted the gift and scored a crucial goal.
At a stroke, Leitrim's hard-earned 1-7 to 0-4 lead was reduced to three points, although they bounced back with a Ray Cox effort to leave the half-time score at 1-8 to 1-5.
The other incident involving McCrann came in the 69th minute. He advanced quickly from his line to intercept an attempted pass by Tierney to Clancy, batting the ball down with one hand.
As it landed, the goalie bent to take possession and clear, but substitute referee Martin Higgins -- original official Rory Hickey had gone off injured after 14 minutes -- blew for a pick-up.
McCrann was incensed and got booked. Laois, leading by just one point at 1-12 to 1-11 at that stage, were awarded a close-range free which Tierney dinked over the bar to give his side a vital bit of insurance.
On the first incident, McCrann said: "I had sight of the ball but it just hadn't come fully to me and he (Clancy) came on the blind-side and got a hand to it. When you've the luck with you, that doesn't happen but it didn't bother us. We went back up the field and got a point."
On the 'pick-up,' he felt the decision was harsh, saying: "He pulled me for picking it off the ground. I felt it bounced up -- but they're little decisions that come and go.
"I know people are fierce proud of us but as a group of lads we're very disappointed because this is really one we should have won. I'm gutted for all the lads that we came so close," said McCrann.
Emlyn Mulligan's five points from frees and lively forward Kevin Conlon's goal were the features of the first half for Leitrim, despite Laois nullifying the threat of full-forward James Glancy.
They were losing 0-4 to 0-3 when Conlon broke through the Laois cover to blast the ball to the net past 'keeper Eoin Culliton after 24 minutes.
Billy Sheehan was used in a sweeper role by Laois, while Leitrim's corner-forwards, Ray Cox and Conlon, ranged deep to help swamp the midfield area.
In the second half, Sheehan was pushed forward, while Brendan Quigley and Colm Begley did a huge job of winning ball in the midfield area, and that meant long spells of pressure on Leitrim.
It showed on the scoreboard -- Leitrim only managed three points in that half, one by Conlon after 50 minutes, another from a superbly struck free near the sideline by Mulligan 10 minutes from full-time, and a 67th-minute point by Conlon.
After four wides with their first four attempts in the second half, Begley got Laois going with a 45th-minute score and further points by Sheehan, Ross Munnelly and Colm Kelly brought them level at 1-9 each 18 minutes from the end.
Additional points by Munnelly, Tierney (free) and Begley gave Laois breathing space but with three minutes to go, and Leitrim on 1-11 to Laois' 1-12, extra-time looked likely.
Then came the McCrann 'pick-up' incident and Tierney's point from the resultant free that sent Laois into the next round.
Scorers -- Laois: C Boyle 1-0, R Munnelly 0-3, C Kelly (1f), C Begley, MJ Tierney (2f), G Walsh 0-2 each, P Clancy, B Sheehan 0-1 each. Leitrim: E Mulligan 0-6f, K Conlon 1-2, R Cox 0-2, C Clarke 0-1.
Laois -- E Culliton 7; C Healy 7, K Meaney 7, J Kavanagh 6; P McMahon 7, J O'Loughlin 7, C Boyle 7; B Quigley 8, C Begley 7; R Munnelly 8, P Clancy 7, D O'Connor 6; B Sheehan 7, G Walsh 7, C Kelly 7. Subs: P O'Leary 7 for Kavanagh (26), MJ Tierney 7 for O'Connor (31), D Strong 6 for McMahon (59), D Conway 6 for Kelly (61).
Leitrim-- C McCrann 7; A Wynne 7, F McMorrow 7, P Maguire 7; C Clarke 7, E Williams 7, D Beck 7; D Sweeney 7, S Moran 7; P Brennan 7, J Glancy 7, R Cox 7; E Mulligan 8, G Hickey 7, K Conlon 8. Subs: R Lowe 6 for Moran (58), C Ryan 6 for Brennan (58), B McDonald 6 for Conlon (63).
Ref -- R Hickey (Clare) inj 14 mins, replaced by M Higgins (Fermanagh).