Laois culture of blame puts new boss in firing line
Tomás ó Flatharta arrives in Laois to the sound of the players admitting that inconsistency is their weak point and that they are looking to him to provide the balancing agent which will equip them to deliver more even performances.
They believe that the quality of the talent in the county is good enough to power up the momentum to a level where their current odds of 33/1 to win next year's Leinster championship and 150/1 for the All-Ireland title will turn out to have been vastly over-priced.
"We have been a bit inconsistent with some of our performances, but the talent is there and hopefully he (ó Flatharta) will be the man to bring it out of us and push on. We have a lot of players now who are pushing strong and leading the way," said Colm Begley.
That sounds hopeful, but ó Flatharta will also know that Laois is one of the tougher managerial landscapes, where criticism can be heavy and sustained.
Inconsistency was a Laois trademark before and after Mick O'Dwyer's four- season term in charge (2003-06). It was especially so in 2012 and '13 when dismal performances saw them eliminated from the Leinster championship in the first round, before they resurrected their ambitions in the qualifiers.
Four qualifier wins in 2012 took them into the All-Ireland quarter-finals, where they lost to Dublin by three points, while three wins last summer hoisted them into Round 4, where they were beaten by Donegal.
It meant that over the two seasons, their All-Ireland run was halted by the 2013 and 2012 champions. Paradoxically, their Leinster challenge was ended by Longford and Louth respectively, both of whom lost in the next round.
That's the environment in which ó Flatharta will find himself when he takes Laois into competitive action in January. His six-year stint with Westmeath (initially as trainer/selector with Páidí ó Sé and later as manager) will have provided him with invaluable experience of dealing with inconsistency, but when it comes to Laois there's often more to it than that.
O'Dwyer made no secret of the fact that he found the Laois psyche difficult to figure out. Despite leading them to the Leinster title for the first time in 57 years in 2003, he almost quit 15 months later after a poor response to training. He was persuaded to stay on, but felt his authority was being undermined a year later when there were complaints about training methods. He stayed on until the end of '06, but regretted it, believing that the atmosphere was never quite the same after losing the '04 Leinster final replay to a Westmeath team led by ó Sé and ó Flatharta.
In 2007, O'Dwyer characterised what he regarded as a key difference between Laois and Kildare, whom he managed for 10 years.
"I found my time in Kildare – especially the second term – more rewarding than any time in Laois. Unlike Kildare, Laois didn't seem to be quite able to take the bad days and, instead, began to look for scapegoats. More often than not, they looked in my direction," he said.
Liam Kearns, Seán Dempsey and Justin McNulty, the three managers who shared the last seven seasons in succession to O'Dwyer, had their critics too at various times. Dempsey, the first local manager since Colm Browne completed his second term in 2002, had to survive a county board vote to remain on after his first season in 2009.
A year later, he was removed, despite being anxious to continue. It was a fractious end to his tenure in a season where a defeat by Tipperary in the first round of the qualifiers left the entire county deeply frustrated.
McNulty's reign seemed destined for a two-year limit after he came in for stinging criticism at a county board meeting following the Leinster defeat to Longford in 2012. Earlier, Laois had been relegated from Division 1, and several prominent members of the board questioned McNulty's stewardship, creating the clear impression that he was on borrowed time.
However, four wins in the qualifiers, followed by a close call against Dublin in the All-Ireland quarter-final, earned him a reprieve and he was reappointed for a third season.
He was back under severe scrutiny when Laois lost to Louth by 10 points in the Leinster first round in Portlaoise this year, but again rescued the situation with a good run in the qualifiers before losing to Donegal. But he subsequently resigned, knowing that it was highly unlikely he would be reappointed, even if he wanted to continue.
It's against that pressurised managerial background that ó Flatharta takes over in a county which is regularly voted as one of the most likely to emerge from the pack and challenge the major powers. But as O'Dwyer, in his latter years, Kearns, Dempsey and McNulty discovered, it's also a county where expectations tend to run out of control.
Begley is convinced that Laois have the players to drive on faster highways which, unwittingly, heaps the pressure on ó Flatharta as he begins to put his plans in place. He does so in a county where the manager tends to be thrust into the firing line much quicker than the players, even those who have failed to reach their potential.