Haves and have-nots
Laois, Westmeath bosses reveal how emigration is making life doubly difficult for weaker counties
AROUND the middle of the last decade, when there was more than enough to go around for everyone, the football landscape was much different.
All across the country, the established order was being challenged as considerable financial backing and a county's ability to keep their best and brightest at home helped level the playing field.
Limerick came as close as anyone in recent times to ending the Cork-Kerry duopoly in Munster. Fermanagh were contesting Ulster finals shortly after Armagh and Tyrone had made the breakthrough at national level, while in Connacht, Sligo secured only their third provincial title.
It's also heading for a decade since Westmeath and Laois were vying to be Leinster's top team as they overtook the traditional big two of Meath and Dublin.
In 2003, Laois secured their first provincial title since 1946 and, 12 months later, they returned to the Leinster decider, only to be outdone by a Westmeath side who claimed the county's only Delaney Cup to date.
Last season saw both sides enjoy successful league campaigns, with the Lake men restoring Division 2 status and Laois returning to the top flight -- but their championship form, the true benchmark of how competitive a team is faring, was much different.
Laois struggled past Longford before losing heavily to Dublin in Leinster. They took out Tipperary in the qualifiers, before shipping another heavy beating at the hands of Leinster opposition, when Kildare left Portlaoise with a 15-point win.
Westmeath failed to win a championship match for the first time in 15 years and now, with the loss of the likes of Keith Scally and Denis Corroon, manager Pat Flanagan feels the gap is getting wider.
"The gap between some counties is getting bigger and bigger and we have to work much harder to bridge that gap," commented Flanagan ruefully
"You don't see the likes of Kildare or Dublin losing players to emigration, but we are and that's what we're up against.
"That's why we've brought in the younger players and we want to keep them together with a view to being successful in the championship further down the line."
Flanagan has seen John Heslin head Down Under to try his hand in the AFL, while Frank Boyle, Paul Greville and Brendan Murtagh have all committed to the county's hurling squad for 2012 and this, suddenly, makes the county's football resources look very shallow.
"Supporters want some immediate success, but the way things have gone now, the so-called weaker counties have to take a longer-term view on success. It is a building process that takes time. You can't just put out a team and expect to be competitive straight away."
Justin McNulty has experienced similar problems in Laois. The likes of Daithi Carroll, Donie Kingston, Padraig McMahon, Mark Timmons and Cahir Healy have so far been unable to commit fully to the county for the coming season for a variety of "personal reasons".
McNulty has dug deep into the county's reserves since his appointment.
He used 38 players last season and handed out another nine debuts in last weekend's defeat to UCD, where ironically, Kingston gave a man of the match display for the students.
"Those players are not able to commit for a variety of personal reasons, and some of them are work-related," said McNulty, who also has to cope with having a number of his front-line performers playing their club football in the capital.
"We're hoping that some of those lads will see their personal circumstances change shortly, but there's not much we can do about that. But there's also a point where we will have to close the door on the panel because they'll be too far behind."
"Everyone is losing players," said the 2002 Armagh All-Ireland winner.
"We just have to deal with it, but it is an issue.
"We're concentrating now on the players we have and what they can give to Laois and they've shown a great commitment to playing for the county team."
The downturn has had a much more practical effect on Laois' preparations.
They have adopted the early-morning sessions the Dubs made popular in 2011, but the 'fight night' they are running in conjunction with the county's hurlers won't be held until January 21.
'Fight nights' became popular as a way to circumvent the training ban, but they were usually run off before Christmas. However, as McNulty explained, counties now have to be smarter about how and when they fund raise.
"We just thought it was more practical to try and raise money around this time of year," he said.
"The run-up to Christmas isn't the best time to be doing that, but the players have made a good effort at selling the tickets and people in Laois have been keen to support them."
Laois will first aim to maintain their Division 1 status before beginning their championship campaign away to Longford on May 20. Westmeath will take on Louth in Navan on the same day.
The bookies have acknowledged that any pairing in the Leinster final that doesn't see Dublin taking on either Kildare or Meath would constitute a major shock, with Laois priced at 22/1 and Westmeath outsiders at 50/1 to win the provincial championship in 2012.
"We are working off a smaller pool and we're losing more players than the bigger counties, which makes it even more difficult for us," said Flanagan.
"And it's not just a Westmeath problem, counties in the midlands, in particular, and across the country too have the same problem.
"It's sad to see our young people leaving in the way they are. It's something we need to look at. We need to see if there is anything more we can do to keep our players at home."