No matter who gets the job, Laois's next hurling manager faces a mammoth task, writes Dermot Crowe
AFTER getting a hammering from Dublin in this year's Leinster championship at Tullamore, the Laois hurlers had a visit to their dressing room from Anthony Daly. Such calls on the vanquished are customary and mostly they fall on deaf ears. But Daly is nothing if not passionate; he has an easy rapport with hurling's afflicted. He knows what it is like to be badly beaten and demoralised.
To those present his address left a lasting impression. How they craved a similar figurehead, a rallying force. Instead, their recent managements had been unhappy marriages that quickly dissolved. The last two, Teddy McCarthy and Brendan Fennelly, each lasted one season and both terminations left Laois considerably worse off than they were at the start.
The next is critical and it is taking time to crack. A meeting of Laois County Board executives and a two-man team appointed to find the successor was held on Friday night. The search party, former Laois hurlers Seamus Plunkett and Paul Cuddy, had nobody pinned down. Many counties have started their pre-season strength and conditioning programmes but Laois need to find the right candidate. If it takes more time so be it.
They are seeking the kind of personality who can unite all factions and bring a modern and cutting-edge influence to bear on preparations. A recent county board promise that a manager would be in place by tomorrow night's monthly meeting has proved optimistic. All concerned are maintaining a tight confidentiality about their deliberations but it is known that a list of managers recommended by a group representing the players all turned down the offer when contacted.
Before McCarthy's appointment last year, the former Clare hurler Colin Lynch was interviewed for the post by Pat Critchley and the under 21 manager Tony Doran. During a second interview with board executives talks reputedly broke down when Lynch felt he was not guaranteed the unequivocal support he needed. It is not known if he has been approached this time or even if he is interested.
According to one source, three candidates from outside the county have been spoken to recently. One may have been John McEvoy, the former Dublin selector who managed Clough-Ballacolla when they lost this year's county final. Another source said McEvoy's link to the job was nothing more than unfounded media speculation.
An obvious target is Niall Rigney and it is believed he has been approached with a view to returning to a position he vacated in 2010. In the meantime, he has been involved with James Stephens where – as in Laois – he is well regarded. Plunkett, the county minor manager, and Cuddy have been tasked with finding a candidate at a time when morale is at an all-time low. Plunkett is a former team-mate of Rigney's at Portlaoise. Cuddy is still hurling into his late 30s with Castletown.
Today the county champions Rathdowney-Errill play in the Leinster club semi-final at Tullamore against Offaly's Kilcormac-Killoughey. Though outsiders, they are given a decent chance of being the first Laois club to reach a provincial final since Castletown lost to Birr 11 years ago. It would be a timely boost for hurling in the county. There has been little else to hold on to. In the championship this year, the 22-point hiding by Dublin was followed by a 25-point lesson from Limerick in the qualifiers. Last year they suffered a hideous 34-point beating from Cork, conceding ten goals.
The Cork rout saw Fennelly depart but not before stating that too many Laois hurlers were not prepared to give the required commitment. Players would argue that the commitment is contingent on them believing they are part of a set-up they can trust and believe in. There is surely some truth here. That said, when Plunkett and Cuddy called a meeting of players to discuss the future in the wake of McCarthy's departure – and the frank outburst from Willie Hyland in this newspaper – only eight turned up. That meant Plunkett and Cuddy had to meet the others in smaller groups – hardly a promising beginning.
It also lost valuable time that could have been spent finding a new manager and probably made the task of finding a replacement all the more challenging. Cuddy and Plunkett came on board after a meeting between the county executive and players led to sour exchanges. This followed Hyland's outburst.
In his interview at the start of July, Hyland revealed how some of the best hurlers in Laois were not making themselves available because preparations were sub-standard and morale on the floor. He also despaired of the leadership being provided by the board. "Players like Cahir Healy, Zane Keenan, Eoin Browne, Joe Phelan, Shane Dollard and Shane Phelan are missing, as are other club hurlers good enough for Laois who won't bother because they see no hope," he said. "Ninety-nine per cent of our lads are genuine but the arse is falling out of it now – there are only so many hidings we can take. I'm sick of shaking hands with opponents after games, almost apologising for our displays."
After the trouncing from Cork, a Laois hurling forum was held to discuss the future and invite proposals. But there have been any amount of hurling plans and recommendations over the last 20 years and the crisis now is as serious as the county has ever faced. When Teddy McCarthy took over, players were surprised to hear he was proposing to do the coaching himself though he would share drills with the physical trainer. Quickly players realised they were not preparing at the same pitch as other counties.
Results sank to a new low. In the spring, they were relegated to Division 2, effectively the third tier, and when the championship hidings came there were calls to drop out of the Leinster championship and play in the Christy Ring Cup. This was rejected by the board and seen as counter-productive but that line is not unanimous among hurling people in the county.
The days when Laois were competitive in Leinster are fading in the memory. The 1980s saw a resurgence, a place in the Centenary Cup final, provincial final appearances, and an All Star for Pat Critchley. Club hurling was dominated by Camross and Portlaoise and they were able to produce robust county teams capable of defeating any of the major powers in Leinster. There was evident pride in the Laois jersey. The irony is that Laois now possess enough skilled players to be competitive and push for promotion to Division 1 but they don't have the application. Unless the rot is stopped at senior level, it will contaminate the underage squads where talented players are emerging.
When Willie Hyland said plainly that he would not be hurling next year unless the situation greatly improved, the sentiments expressed were understandable. Hyland began his hurling under Dinny Cahill while in his teens, cited Paul Cuddy and Niall Rigney among his inspirations but has clearly become chronically disillusioned. He was there when Cahill gave way to Damien Fox whose term ended prematurely after only 12 players attended a pre-championship training session. Into the breach stepped Rigney. His spell brought greater stability and much improved results, though it started with a lashing from Galway. Their progress was demonstrated in the qualifier match in 2010 against Limerick when they stayed in contention until the final stages.
The current GAA president Liam O'Neill is presiding at a time when hurling morale in the county has never been lower, though he points to the 1970s when Laois competed in the B championship. In the next decade they were "beating every county in the country" and Galway is cited as a county who in the 1960s were subjected to hammerings while plying their trade in Munster. But are those similar cases, he is asked: "I'm not saying that they're similar but turnarounds can happen."
O'Neill was involved in producing a report on hurling in Laois back in 1990 which he says was "effectively ignored". He recalls the provincial secretary and Laois native Michael Delaney a few years later recommending that Laois drop out of the league and focus their energy on club hurling. Delaney later again suggested that Laois opt out of adult championship along with Carlow, Westmeath, Meath and Wicklow for three years, to focus on developing a vibrant club programme. Various reports on the game have been published since then.
When the 'Hurling for Laois' programme was launched in 2003, Paudie Butler, then Laois manager, said: "This is our opportunity. Laois has a new image now – a successful and proud county that has its young people going to bed dreaming of playing for Laois." That year the footballers won the Leinster title and it was hoped that the hurlers could surf the wave. Butler returned last year in a new role offering coaching advice and guidance.
In 2005 came the 'Hurling to the Top' plan for Laois, intended to run over three years at a cost of €250,000. "Hurling in Laois is in dire straits," the county board chairman Dick Miller bluntly remarked at the time. If he thought it bad then he'd better look away now.