Saturday 27 May 2017

Out of the darkness and into the light

'Cheddar' Plunkett is restoring pride in Laois hurling after a dismal period

Laois manager Seamus Plunkett is congratulated by Offaly boss Brian Whelahan SPORTSFILE
Laois manager Seamus Plunkett is congratulated by Offaly boss Brian Whelahan SPORTSFILE
Cahir Healy celebrates Laois's Leinster SHC win earlier this month SPORTSFILE
The scoreboard tells a sorry tale for Laois hurling after their meeting with Cork in 2011

Christy O'Connor

A few miles outside Portlaoise, on the road to Abbeyleix, there is a huge blue and white sign in Clonad. It's one of a number of different posters dotted around that part of Laois.

Some have different wording but they all carry the same message. 'This is Laois Hurling Country; The Championship has begun;Your County Needs YOU now.'

Erected and designed by the Laois hurlers' supporters club, the large lettering appears alongside a crest with the image of a bearded Celtic warrior in front of a castle ruins.

Dressed in a blue and white robe, the warrior has a shield by his side and a hurley in his right hand. Underneath the crest are three words: 'Honest Brave Humble'.

Wildfire

That core message of the hurling world Laois now inhabit, and hope to prosper in, has spread like wildfire.

Today, the primary schools are having a 'Blue Day', where all the kids are encouraged to wear Laois colours in support of the senior and minor hurling teams this weekend.

The movement has gathered huge momentum but it's even more inspiring considering it began at ground zero for Laois hurling.

On the night Laois beat Offaly two weeks ago, Anthony Daly told a story on The Sunday Game from a day in 2012 when Laois were staring into the abyss of oblivion. Willie Hyland, one of Laois' best players, was so cut up by the 22-point defeat that he told Daly he was on the verge of quitting.

It was about to get worse. Limerick annihilated Laois in the qualifiers by 25 points.

A year earlier, Cork hit them for 10-20 and won by 34 points. Where was the torture going to end? How many more punishment beatings were Laois going to suffer? Hyland was only 23 at the time but how many more players were thinking like him?

A week after that Limerick defeat in 2012, Hyland publicly aired the anger and torment inside him.

"This is about Laois hurling and the depression we feel," he said. "The whole scene is beating us down. The truth is we need a complete restructure behind the scenes and for the senior team. I won't be there in October unless the whole scene is changed.

"There are only so many hidings we can take. I'm sick of shaking hands with opponents after games, almost apologising for our displays."

That's how embarrassing it had become to be a Laois hurler. Since Niall Rigney had left in 2010, Laois had spiralled into a chaotic spin. The managerial appointments of Brendan Fennelly and Teddy McCarthy had not worked.

The Laois jersey held very little respect, inside or outside the county. Some of the best hurlers had no interest in hitching their carriage to a train that looked headed for the cliff-edge.

Seamus 'Cheddar' Plunkett and Paul Cuddy were tasked with trying to find a manager but the initial search revealed the apathy connected to Laois hurling.

Before Plunkett and Cuddy began, they met the players to canvass opinion and gather feedback of how they had careered so disastrously into the wall. Six players turned up.

A second meeting was called. Eight were present. Plunkett and Cuddy had no choice but to meet every player individually.

"There was complete disillusionment there," says Cuddy now.

Plunkett and Cuddy met a number of people to discuss taking on the job. They spoke with one candidate twice but nobody would bite.

"We sold it very well," says Cuddy. "There was talent there. There were good young players coming. But they had probably all done some background research and were thinking, 'What would I be taking on here?".

When they failed to get someone, the head-hunting assignment eventually wound up at Plunkett's own door. He had been involved with the Laois minors and was well versed in the club scene.

Vision

When he accepted the job in late 2012, he had a clear vision of what he wanted - a professional framework so he could get players to buy into his project. Plunkett created the environment players like Hyland were crying out for. A culture players could grow in.

"The big thing Cheddar wanted was a set-up where all the players had to concentrate on was hurling," says Cuddy, who was a selector with Plunkett for the last two years.

"The mindset in Laois was all you had to do was be able to hurl, but a whole load of boxes had to be ticked before a player could play inter-county. Were the players fit or strong enough? Were they mentally strong enough? Had they the right technique?"

The first night Plunkett met the players, he wanted to catch their attention. He did.

"I was delighted 'Cheddar' got the job because I knew he would fight to get us the very best," said Cahir Healy recently on Newstalk. "I knew that he wouldn't take any crap off us, that there would be no excuses left for players. It would be all on us."

Plunkett only wanted players who were prepared to buy into his vision. Then he made the team harder to beat.

"Team systems and game-plans was a huge thing," says Cuddy. "Laois were getting annihilated. We had to sort that out. You have to build a team from goalkeeper out."

With the establishment of the Setanta programme nearly a decade earlier, which catered for the development of Laois' young hurlers, the culture was already beginning to change.

Good players were emerging from competitive minor teams. Eleven of the current senior squad have come through the Setanta programme but Plunkett's philosophy was about more than just improving them as hurlers.

Plunkett has repeatedly referred to the term 'Laoisness'. He wanted to instil a new pride in the Laois jersey, to create a new identity for Laois hurling.

Plunkett wasn't a high-profile name but he was the perfect appointment in the context of where Laois were coming from.

"Cheddar changed the culture for us," said Healy. "It wouldn't have happened without him."

One wet Saturday morning in early 2013, Plunkett brought the players to Sentry Hill in Borris-in-Ossory. After a hard physical session, Plunkett gathered the group at the top of the hill, which overlooked most of the Laois hurling landscape. Each player was asked to point out the general direction of their club and to describe how it felt to hurl for that club.

The core message was that if they were united and organised, Laois could scale the peaks ahead.

They began with foothills. The morning after they beat Antrim in the opening round of the 2013 Leinster Championship, the squad gathered at 'The Rock of Dunamase', an outcrop incorporating the ruins of Dunamase Castle, a stronghold dating from the early Hiberno-Norman period. A local historian, Teddy Fennelly, spoke to the squad that morning about the vast history of the place.

"It was a big fortress in Laois centuries ago," says Cuddy. "That's what we were trying to get across to the players. We wanted to become harder to beat."

When they played Galway a month later, Laois set up with two sweepers and took Galway to the wire. As the journey continued and the players began to grow and evolve, the set-up and framework became stronger.

Plunkett recruited quality people: Ger Cunningham as hurling coach; strength and conditioning was overseen by Pat Flanagan; Brendan Cummins later arrived as goalkeeping coach. This year, former Waterford player and selector Paraic Fanning arrived as a selector and defensive coach.

The apparatus is as professional as strong as in any of the top counties. Players regularly receive personal statistical analysis on their iPhones.

On the week of a game, they receive a five-page dossier, which ranges from puckout tactics, the game-plan for the day to a forensic individual and tactical breakdown on the opposition. Even the opposition's individual players' club form is monitored for microscopic detail.

The squad went to Portugal on a training camp a few months back, but everything is driven by Plunkett. On Christmas Eve last, he met a player at a petrol station at 10.15pm for a chat about the player's motivations for the season ahead.

"Cheddar absolutely lives and dies for Laois hurling," says Cuddy. "He has put his whole life on hold for this."

When Plunkett briefly walked away three weeks ago, he did so on principle after two players played a club challenge game against his wishes.

He returned a few days later when he felt his decision had made the most powerful statement possible for the future welfare and pathway of Laois hurling. The two players were brought back but Plunkett's message was clear: 'This is the way we do things now. This is the right way Laois hurling must continue to do things'.

That has to the collective attitude with the small pool they're drawing from. There are only eight senior hurling clubs in Laois. Only 25 clubs field hurling teams, but the culture is growing stronger all the time.

A new hurling club, Slieve Margy, an amalgamation of six strong football clubs in the south-east of the county, was founded in January.

The underage production line is continually getting stronger. In 2013, Laois reached a Leinster minor final for the first time since 1991.

That day in 1991, David Cuddy played as a 15-year old. Last year, his son Evan captained the Laois minor team. It has taken a generation for the light to reappear again in Laois hurling.

Legitimate

David and Paul Cuddy gave huge service to Laois for over a decade, only winning a handful of championship games. Laois should have beaten Kilkenny in 1998 but when they missed that chance, it never came back.

This Laois team still have a distance to travel but they are a legitimate threat now, a hurling county with real respect again.

"There's a huge buzz and goodwill out there now for the hurling team," says David Cuddy. "The last day against Offaly was one of the best supported Laois teams in the last 20 years. The foundations have been laid. The future is positive."

After defeating Offaly in the championship for the first time in 43 years, they face Galway tomorrow evening with no fears or hang-ups. Three years on from falling into the abyss, Laois are basking in the bright light of a whole new world.

Laois is real hurling country again. Honest, brave and humble.

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