There's no point in going into something if you don't think you can win it – Whelan
Published 28/03/2014 | 02:30
AS if to underline how much their mindset has changed, Matthew Whelan looks at Laois' Allianz Hurling League campaign and views it as a missed opportunity.
By any standards they've made remarkable strides, but after a season that saw them consolidate their standing in Division 1B and chalk up a rare win against Offaly in the process, Whelan still has regrets.
When Seamus 'Cheddar' Plunkett took over, the county's previous competitive game was a 25-point defeat to Limerick, but Whelan insists that's irrelevant now and points to their more recent form instead.
They've come close to some pretty significant scalps and last weekend they let Munster champions Limerick off the hook as they led going into the closing stages. They might also have toppled Wexford.
"Firstly, we wanted to stay in Division 1B and the win over Offaly opened things up for us a bit. But we felt we could have won more," said Whelan.
"Against Wexford we were in a good position to win and we were probably in an even better position against Limerick last weekend, so we thought we could have gotten more wins, and we were a little disappointed with that."
The prize for their upturn in form is a league quarter-final clash with All-Ireland champions Clare, which will provide another measure of their progress.
They were 20 points shy when the sides met in the qualifiers last summer. The O'Moore men had rattled Galway in Leinster, but the effort drained their legs and Clare were convincing winners.
"They probably knew what we were going to do tactically," Whelan conceded. "We were at a different stage of our development then and you saw what they went on to do later that year. But I think we're a better team now."
Things have come full circle now for Whelan. When he joined the Laois panel in 2007, Niall Rigney guided them back into the top flight in the league and they went on to test Galway later that year.
He admits that they lost their way at some point in the interim and could only watch as things went from bad to worse.
Championship hammerings became all too common, to the point where Laois were offered a place in the Christy Ring competition – much to the ire of the county's hurling public.
Managers came and went, and after Teddy McCarthy's departure in the wake of Limerick's demolition job in 2011, Plunkett was part of a committee established to find a successor.
But when they couldn't produce a suitable candidate, he took on the role himself. It proved to be a masterstroke as Laois instantly became more competitive. They gained promotion last year and even as they stepped up in class without six first-team players from that side, their upward graph has continued.
And with minor and U-21 teams reaching Leinster finals in recent seasons, the future looks even brighter.
Plunkett has surrounded himself with an impressive back-room team.
Ger Cunningham is on board as a coach, while Tipperary legend Brendan Cummins works with the goalkeepers.
Pat Flanagan, who previously worked with the Kerry footballers, is involved, and Whelan says the players have responded.
"We've got the training right and everyone is putting in a big effort. We have video analysis, nutrition, we do more on tactics and we're doing the weights in the same way all the other counties are now," he said.
"When you do all that external stuff, you hurl better and your confidence grows and I think that is showing at the minute."
Clare have shown no sign that the mantle of All-Ireland champions weighs on them and they'll be expected to progress comfortably this weekend. But after threatening to take some big scalps this year, Whelan wants another big performance against one of the top sides.
"It's a national quarter-final. I think we have plenty to play for and there's no point going into something if you don't think you can win it," he said.