Damian Lawlor: Inner Strength Drives Them On
Portlaoise have had their struggles on and off the field but they are still standing, writes Damian Lawlor
RESILIENCE has become something of a buzzword for Portlaoise in recent times. Seven Laois titles in succession has done little for their worth outside of the county, with their exceptional run heavily depreciated by the fact they have only landed one Leinster title in that time.
"We haven't been that far away," says Pat Critchley, a star of their 1983 All-Ireland-winning team. "We were close against St Brigid's in recent years and kicked an amount of wides against Ballymun last year. There is a feeling that we are closer with every game we play this season though. It would be nice to finish the job today."
It's now 30 years since the club won their first and only All-Ireland club title, and the sense that they need to finally push on is inescapable.
If they again fail to break their losing Leinster run, you suspect that at least this time they will not be leaving anything on the field. Ever since being beaten early in the Laois championship and suffering an almighty scare in the county final against Arles-Killeen, they have demonstrated their inner strength. Deep within lies a desire to shed the tag of 'underachievers' and a dogged determination to bring more provincial silverware home.
"We've had a few shaky moments in Laois but it seems to have steeled the lads," Critchley adds. "The manner in which we've dug deep in the last two games, especially, has been very heartening for everyone."
They had to tough it out too in Leinster, coming from eight points down to beat Longford Slashers in extra-time and coming from behind to beat Kildare champions Moorefield.
Inevitably, along the way they have knit together even closer. Their quarter-final against the Longford champions was delayed by a week after the sudden death of Gretta Kelly, mother of forward Adrian (pictured). He then appeared as a substitute in that rearranged match and landed a crucial point. He was also called upon a week later in the hard-earned win over Moorefield.
"The GAA club is almost like a village within Portlaoise town and when Adrian came on in those games you could almost feel or sense that the crowd were willing him onto that pitch and through the games. There's a lot going on in Portlaoise town and hurling and football are only parts of it, but everyone is behind each other – that's really important to note."
They've certainly done everything to assemble a strong squad; to keep everyone tight as a group. But it hasn't been easy. At the start of the season Barry and Tommy Fitzgerald and the sublimely talented Paul Cahillane were also missing for several months and even now they've had to prepare for each game without two of their best players, Cahir Healy and Brian Glynn, both of whom work in the UK.
"They show incredible commitment," says captain Brian McCormack. "Cahir Healy was unbelievable against Moorefield. The work that he and Brian Glynn do over in England every week is immense. It's a credit to the two boys that they return at weekends in such good shape. It really drives on the rest of us when you have two players that give 110 per cent every time they play and put on the green and white for Portlaoise. They are phenomenal players."
Once their championship runs ends, Healy has signalled his intention to take off travelling around the world. This only underlines the importance of today's game. The team is fast being hounded and hunted down by their rivals in Laois and with competition increasing they might not get too many more bites at Leinster. A promising group of under 21s are on the way and those who are not already on the senior team will surely soon infiltrate. Teams break up all the time. McCormack knows that nothing lasts forever, which only adds to the sense of urgency today, but he's happy with the talent coming through.
"We'd lost a lot of league games at the start of the season and lads had gone travelling or committed to the hurling at the start of the summer," he recalls. "But that meant a lot of under 21s have come in and we've got a much bigger panel now."
They've learned from every match too, most notably to stop conceding frees. In the past, Portlaoise have been guilty of loose defence and poor shooting. They kicked 14 wides against Ballymun Kickhams in last year's Leinster final. There have been many great clashes between Portlaoise and Dublin clubs over the years but if the midland side repeat that statistic this afternoon they don't need telling what the outcome will be.
Yet, the signs of that resilience are everywhere. Apart from the Kelly family's bereavement, the loss of the much-loved Peter McNulty in October 2010 left a lingering air of sadness around the club. And they have endured many other sad days. McNulty's passing was so tough to deal with that his team-mates still become emotional when they talk about him. He was an integral part of what the 'Town' was all about and he played a key role in their successes during the 2000s. In 2005, as a teenager, his free-taking was one of the main reasons they beat Crossmaglen in the All-Ireland semi-final.
Portlaoise have had to cope with other issues too. They have been burdened with massive debt, and illnesses to club stalwarts.
Having sold their grounds behind O'Moore Park to a development company in 2009 (in a proposed deal worth €19m for 17 acres), they bought new land two kilometres away. The deal with the company was dependent on their old grounds being rezoned for development but disaster struck when that application was eventually turned down by An Bord Pleanála. By then, Portlaoise had already secured a €6m advance to buy the new site at Rathleague, leaving them with a major financial disaster on their hands.
Theirs was an especially unfortunate case but it's been an ongoing daily reality for club officers who have to try and deal with that debt, as well as keeping their football academy bubbling away beneath the surface of a fine senior team. These days they rent their old grounds to various Laois teams for training purposes and are continually looking for ways to have the matter resolved.
Again, their resilience has shone through. They've stuck together; kept their eye on the ball along the way.
"The deal was within an inch of getting over the line and it took serious vision and ambition to get it that far," Critchley reasons. "But then it fell just as we were going over the finishing line. What do you do? We have to get on with it and we have. The community spirit and amount of volunteerism over the past few years has been incredible and has helped everyone keep the show on the road. In our new premises, for example, we have a place called The Hangar which Cheddar (Plunkett, Portlaoise stalwart and current Laois hurling manager) put up. It is basically a steel-roofed dome with a concrete floor and a gym inside. It's no frills, but in a way it stands for what we have been doing. The players use it to just go in and get the job done."
Maybe it's the legacy of a proud and glorious past that has kicked in and reminded them of what they are about. For so long they led the dance in Leinster football having won a record seven provincial titles ('71, '76, '82, '85, '87, '04, '09).
How they could do with another title.
One last peak must be scaled, however. But it's a massive hill to climb, considering Dublin teams remain a constant bogey. Last year, they surrendered to Ballymun, in 2011 St Brigid's beat them after extra-time in the semi-final, Kilmacud Crokes dumped them out in the 2010 quarter-finals and in 2007 they were beaten by St Vincent's.
"This year we were probably written off in our own county," McCormack says. "It's not going to be easy today but we've grown used to that now. They have class players everywhere. For me, Diarmuid Connolly has probably played the best football in Ireland over the last two years, he's an unbelievable talent. If you're also losing someone of Ger Brennan's ability, Dublin's centre-back for the last few years, then it shows how strong they are when they can still score 1-14 without them, at this time of year, in the semi-final. We know we've got a big problem with those boys coming back.
"But people were saying a few years ago that we didn't have the panel, were relying on the bare 16-17 players but our panel has got a lot stronger . . . there's seven of the boys that played in the under 21 final (which they won), that helps."
They are back in a Leinster final. Back where they want to be. They need to win it now.