Sport Gaelic Football

Tuesday 16 January 2018

Unlikely lifeline for McNulty and Laois

John O'Loughlin celebrates scoring a goal for Laois against Clare earlier this month.
John O'Loughlin celebrates scoring a goal for Laois against Clare earlier this month.
David Kelly

David Kelly

The forgotten qualifier. As the seemingly endless and tedious whittling down of wheat from chaff arrives at its ultimate destination, two average mid-division Leinster teams face off at Wexford Park with most of the country looking elsewhere.

Wexford and Laois are both even money to win this one; the bookies don't have a clue. Perhaps they don't care. And yet...

Both sides line out this evening knowing that their summer could have been finished by this stage; instead, there may be giddy intrigue left for one or the other to fulfil.

For the winners know they could be up against a deflated Monaghan a week later. Imagine, 70 minutes from a Croke Park All-Ireland quarter-final!

The rewards of this reckoning are steep indeed. So too the runes of failure. The losers will head for the scrap heap. Familiar enough territory for both, perhaps, but it will cost the visiting side a higher price.

Justin McNulty has thus far managed to replicate last season's rehabilitation via the qualifier route despite haemorrhaging players and, purportedly, ceding some control as to how his side play football.

OUTLAST

Few would have predicted that the Armagh man would outlast his 2003 All-Ireland winning colleague Aidan O'Rourke when the latter's Louth pitched up in Portlaoise and pounded the home side into the dirt last month.

For a second successive summer, though, the mazy qualifier circuit has salvaged some Laois pride.

For lesser counties – of which there are currently more than at any time in football – the qualifier draw offers either prospective ignominy or inspiration.

Offaly lose bravely to Kildare then get Tyrone? Ignominy. Laois are humiliated at home but then pluck Carlow and Clare from the hat? Inspired.

You make your own luck, though, and Laois have made theirs count big, even if they have spluttered and stuttered at the start of both the respective 10- and 17-point evening strolls.

A similar failure to launch tonight and their luck will run out against a Wexford team who are neither as good as their supporters suggest nor as bad as their critics carp.

Ten years since Laois won a Leinster title under the peripatetic Mick O'Dwyer's leadership, the county with an enviable record of producing gifted footballers have utterly failed to kick on.

They could and should have won at least one more Leinster title. But internal disharmony and indiscipline undermined them; for a county who religiously recruited reams of under-age talent, the alacrity with which so many of them remained unfulfilled seems remarkable.

Even under O'Dwyer, players revolted. Sean Dempsey, who led his native Laois to an All-Ireland minor title, and Liam Kearns have both disappeared off the inter-county radar since.

Laois football has broken many a man.

McNulty arrived to little fanfare in 2010 and, mainly due to an ascetic set-up, few have seen fit to blow his trumpet in the three seasons since.

Armagh's way doesn't always translate. Unless something extraordinary happens from this day forth, his days are numbered in Laois.

Twelve months ago, some county board suits rather impolitely suggested after the stunted, defensive-minded loss to Longford that they would prefer losing in a manner to which Laois had become rather more accustomed.

McNulty bit his lip and steered his side through the qualifiers as far as a meeting with Dublin in the quarter-finals, where Laois tugged the forelock to the then All-Ireland champions and meekly surrendered.

Had Laois had a crack that day – in the second half they had no score or wide from play – who knows what might have happened, especially as Pat Gilroy's men were only 70 minutes from their own demise?

This season, as he perhaps inevitably eyes the door being held indiscreetly ajar from the county board types, McNulty's influence has been curbed somewhat.

Trainer John Sugrue, a Kerryman with seemingly rather more enlightened views on the sport, has assumed greater sway. The influence on their scoring – 3-13 and 3-17, regardless of the fluffed up opposition, are un-Laois-like totals – has been marked.

Today, they are likely to line up with at least five forwards in orthodox positions, and wing-backs Darren Strong and Padraig McMahon will be encouraged to flow forth in support.

Much hope is placed warily upon the shoulders of Donie Kingston, whose form has been fitful.

FLIGHT

Sadly, a fifth of their side has taken flight this summer; some, like Brendan Quigley for inescapable economic reasons. Were Laois a viable long-term prospect, who knows whether Quigley and others may have stayed.

Others like one-time prodigy MJ Tierney have quit the panel or, like Matty Campion, have given up work in the US to stay on the panel but don't make the squad.

Cahir Healy, who retreated to his first love, hurling, played when injured in defeat to Clare and is more likely to ready himself for Portlaoise's assault on the club title than an improbable football march.

Meanwhile, complaints about the club championship linger. For the only landlocked county to be surrounded by other landlocked counties, Laois perennially harbours stormy waters.

The talk is that the next manager will be best-placed to sort out the innumerable intractable problems that define Laois football.

But then that's what they said the last time. At least today there is some cohesion; an unchanged side bar a brace of cosmetic positional switches.

And so now the forgotten qualifier beckons. The winners will be just one step away from a jaunt to HQ. The losers? They will be just, well, forgotten. A beaten docket.

Irish Independent

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