Micko shadow still hangs over Laois as Longford test looms
MICK O'Dwyer casts a long shadow over the managers who followed the Kerry maestro into the hot seat at Laois since the halcyon days of the early Noughties.
Back in 2003, O'Dwyer brought Laois to their first Leinster championship win in 57 years beating the Dubs in the semi-final and Kildare in the final.
A first provincial title since 1946 and it was followed by successive Leinster finals in 2004 and 2005, each of them lost by narrow margins, first to Paidi O Se's Westmeath after a replay by 0-12 to 0-10 and then Dublin by 0-14 to 0-13.
Perhaps they might have done the three-in-a row but for injuries and internal angst directed by some of the players against Micko in '04 and '05, but when it comes down to it, a few points either way is all that stood between them and unprecedented success for the county.
Since O'Dwyer left the job with the bar set higher than it had been for decades, Liam Kearns (2006-'08), Sean Dempsey (2009-'10) and now Justin McNulty have faced the challenge of matching supporters' expectations to the reality of team building in a highly competitive province.
It started well for the current manager with promotion from Division 2 in the 2011 league, but ended with defeat to Kildare in the second round of the qualifiers.
McNulty hasn't enjoyed his second season as team boss so far. The O'Byrne Shield win didn't excite him and rightly so, as Laois went on to be relegated from Division 1 of the league, with only four points gained from their seven outings.
He has picked a strong physical side to play Longford in the opening round of the Leinster Championship tomorrow, leaving some of the likely scoring potential from Paul Cahillane, David Conway and MJ Tierney out of the starting 15.
The league campaign of Conway and Tierney was disrupted by hamstring injuries, but they could see action at some point in the match.
Ross Munnelly and Padraig Clancy the only two current players who featured in the 2003 Leinster-winning side are ready, willing and able for action once again, as is Billy Sheehan who was in the 2005 Leinster final side.
Whatever about the year to date, McNulty and his players are united in wanting to prove a point tomorrow, not only to Longford, but also to their supporters.
"I think they (supporters) haven't seen a glimmer of light to give them the hope that they need, but, hopefully, if we can beat Longford, that will be the glimmer of light that we can provide.
"I would encourage, of course, that all the loyal Laois supporters to get behind the players, because these guys have given serious commitment and serious effort, and they deserve the support of the people of Laois," said McNulty.
Opponents Longford come into the game on a rising tide after gaining a second successive promotion and winning the Division 3 final in Croke Park. And yet Laois know all about casting a pall of gloom over Longford football.
Liam Kearns' 2007 side ousted Longford in the Leinster quarter-finals, and repeated the dose a year later in the All-Ireland qualifiers.
McNulty's men maintained the Laois hoodoo over tomorrow's opposition at Portlaoise last year, albeit in a low-scoring, low-standard match on a scoreline of 0-10 to 0-9. Laois missed the target 10 times, while Longford's wide count was a massive 16.
Glenn Ryan is cautiously optimistic about the home team's prospects. The fans are buoyed by the bit of silverware that has to Pearse Park and the thought of revenge over Laois adds some spice to the anticipation, but the manager is keeping cool.
He was a player with Kildare -- he came on as a sub -- when Laois shocked the Lilywhites in that 2003 final and he wasn't happy to be defeated by the O'Moore team as a manager last year.
That said, Ryan's job is to get Longford right on the day and that's all that concerns him.
"We've a very tough task ahead. There's no point patting ourselves on the back for what happened a few months ago.
"They're (Laois) a very good footballing team. When we were competing in division 3 they were competing in division 1. That's a very big gulf that we have to try to overcome. They're a quality side," he said.