ALMOST a year to the day, rumours of a heave against Justin McNulty circulated in Laois.
After they were beaten by Longford in last year's Leinster championship, those concerns were still around. "Had Dublin trounced Laois in the All-Ireland quarter-final last year, chances are that the McNulty era would have ended," says former All-Ireland-winning minor captain Craig Rogers. "But Laois held their own in that game and those involved decided to build on that."
It was a fair call. After qualifier wins over Monaghan, Leitrim and Meath, McNulty had earned the chance of a third year at the wheel.
While people still doubt if the team is playing to its maximum ability, this championship is brimming with promise for the manager and his men. If they can get over Louth, the path to a Leinster travels the easier side of the draw.
Under McNulty, this team has shown flashes of genius, but their biggest problem is they can appear panic-stricken in attack; unable to close games out.
Everything possible has been done for the team. They are a tight enough bunch; they share a Facebook page where they compare training notes and encourage each other. When a potential change was in the air last year, the players ploughed through it and held their thunder. When the likes of Cahir Healy and Donie Kingston left the squad (Kingston later returned), there was no breaking of the dressing-room code.
Along with McNulty, trainer Barry Solan has helped transform the team physically through intense conditioning work. They are as mobile as any Laois team of the past, and while they take too much out of the ball at times, their running game can cause any team problems. They are well organised and have a sound defensive system. But the manager has tended to look to bigger, more powerful players instead of the niftier, more natural footballer, and that has upset the purists at times.
"A lot of good things have been achieved," says Rogers. "We are tactically well set, very organised, bigger and more powerful than before. The problem is we're inconsistent – brilliant one day and poor a week later.
"We haven't properly developed an attacking game plan, in my opinion, and when we are in front we tend to retreat. We struggle to hang on to leads, as against Longford last year."
They have considerable options on the bench this afternoon. Pádraig Clancy is likely to fill an impact sub role at full-forward and his experience could be crucial in the last 15 minutes.
MJ Tierney is very unlucky not to start. He may look like the stereotypical stylist; a flair player with a bit of flash, but that is an unfair portrayal.
Tierney works exceptionally hard, practises non-stop and has enough ability to win his own ball and trouble any defence. Once again, he'll have a big point to prove if he enters the fray today.
When they met in the league these two played out a very entertaining draw. From that experience, Laois know they must cope with Shane Lennon. They'll put a sweeper, most likely Colm Begley, in front of him, while Damien O'Connor will pick up Louth's midfield playmaker Paddy Keenan. Conor Boyle or Pádraig McMahon, meanwhile, could be asked to shadow Andy McDonnell.
"Lennon was unmarkable in that league game," Rogers adds. "But the management is tactically good and they'll be ready for that.
"The fact that Cahir Healy has left for the hurlers is a huge loss but at least they have Donie (Kingston) back. He is a great talent and if we are to progress, he has to be there in the thick of it.
"But there's pressure too – Aidan O'Rourke is only in his first season while our lads are in their third year at the helm, so there's an edge alright."
It is seldom different in Laois, where expectation levels remain high, maybe too high. A win today would be hard-earned, but if they clear this hurdle, it could signal a landmark in the Justin McNulty era.