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Wilderness years coming to an end for prodigal sons

ON the night before a league match some years ago, the Carlow footballers decided to hold a team meeting.

A win was inconceivable, but their manager simply asked for a performance, a platform to build on with the championship just around the corner. The team was staying overnight in a hotel and agreed there and then to fully commit for the next five weeks. The first step was to ban alcohol.

That pact lasted about an hour as the squad stumbled across a wedding on the way back to their rooms. When they hit the field the following day, only two players hadn't had a drink the night before and you could tell pretty quickly who they were.

That is just one anecdote. You could set out to catalogue the horror stories this county has endured over the past 15 years and assemble some collection. To put it bluntly, a general apathy has built up towards the county football team over the past two decades, while their club scene has, at times, thrived.

Between 1992 and 1999, for instance, éire óg landed five provincial titles while O'Hanrahans captured the Leinster championship in 2000-'01. There should have been plenty of raw material for the county team, but instead manager after manager has walked away disillusioned.

Liam Hayes arrived to the job in 2004 armed with infectious zest and energy and soon guided them to a titanic championship win over Offaly. Over a year later he was gone and didn't mince his words. "There is plenty of talent in the county," he said. "But I asked 10 guys to come into the panel and they flat out refused."

Andy Shortall was next up but he was out the door even quicker than Hayes following complaints that his training sessions weren't difficult enough. The players also looked for a higher profile manager and Shortall faced a scenario where half of the previous year's panel didn't even want to be considered for his squad.

He wasn't alone in that quandary as promising young managers like Cyril Hughes, Pat Roe, Mickser Condon and Paul Bealin all witnessed the problems at first hand and gradually lost heart.

When Luke Dempsey took the team for the second time in 2009 people openly wondered if he was mad. He duly walked straight into a customary storm in his first season having to plan without eight of his best players after they decided not to commit.

"It's been like that, on and off, for the past 15 years," says one of Carlow's most decorated soldiers, Willie Quinlan.

"Even this year, there were two or three guys who walked away after getting their gear. To me that's a total disgrace. But we're used to stuff like that here.

"When I was playing, Johnny Nevin, Sean Kavanagh and I provided the nucleus of the team but every year we'd find 10 new players in. You'd be just about to settle and they'd be gone again, with another 10 coming in the year after. You'd enquire after such and such a player only to be told: 'Ah he's not bothered'.

"All this happened not long after we won an All-Ireland B championship, which was a big deal for us. Back then Carlow clubs were very strong. It should never have happened."

Success is usually based on sound foundations, though, and Carlow GAA has lacked these. When Shortall was forced out in March 2007, the board were pressurised into hunting a sixth manager in six years; an embarrassing statistic.

"Managers have come in full of ideas and left drained of enthusiasm a year later," Quinlan adds. "We never strung a few wins together and no matter how good the players thought they were, we were never able to get out of Division 4."

Had Carlow lost to Louth two weekends ago there was every chance that they would have bowed out in the qualifiers, leaving Dempsey again close to the exit door. But, in fairness, the former Westmeath boss has stuck at it and overseen what developing talent there is from the under 21 side. He has also cracked down on indiscipline and has only engaged with players who want to play.

Following a night-club incident after a league match in London last year, he made his 2011 squad sign a code of conduct. This was also to apply to on-field matters after they were placed bottom of the 2010 fair play table.

Dempsey asked his players to stay loyal to the cause, improve their discipline on and off the pitch and work hard to improve the standard of football within the county and its standing outside of it. He put them through their individual gym programmes and got a good response. While they were inconsistent in the league, they at least won four games. Players remarked that the atmosphere was better than in most other years.

But of course there was another setback on the way. Hughie Gahan didn't come back to the panel for the championship while Alan Kelly also dropped out -- two promising players again departed. Mark Carpenter left the panel because he couldn't shake off injuries but he owes the county nothing after his longevity. Mark Brennan committed to the hurlers, David Bambrick went travelling to Thailand while Shane Mernagh and Paul Kelly also withdrew.

After a decent league Dempsey once again found himself strenuously denying that there were problems in the squad. It was the same in 2009 when upon taking charge he saw about seven players walk away. Years ago there was concern at the lack of Palatine players in the squad with none available whereas nowadays there are no O'Hanlon's players on the scene and that's almost incomprehensible.

Even when Thomas Walsh returned from his hiatus in Wicklow, the players' vote to allow him return was so marginal that it threatened to become a more divisive issue then when he first left. Walsh may not have covered himself in glory leaving for Wicklow but Carlow needs a player of his calibre every day of the week. Rather than see the bigger picture, many footballers didn't want him back.

And yet they now stand only 70 minutes from the most unexpected Leinster final appearance of modern times. Brendan Murphy shot three Hollywood points against Louth and although they were five years without a championship victory, completely written off by all the pundits, subject to some defections and had five debutants on view, they still claimed a smashing victory.

Quinlan was working for KCLR fm that day and totally took over from commentator David Byrnes in the final seconds amidst the excitement. When Murphy kicked that winning point Quinlan's son, Ronan, fell off his stool with delight. It meant so much to finally witness sunshine after years of misery.

"It gave us all hope again," Quinlan says. "I'm not sure would Luke have stayed on past this year had we lost. But to see the boys stick at it when Louth came back at us was unreal. I'm watching them in the league all year and I didn't think they would do it.

"I know we'll be underdogs again today against Wexford but while it's unlikely we'll beat them it's not the worst draw to get. We've been lucky to get this side of the draw and we'll have to take our chance because we might never get the same fortune again.

"We have a better midfield in my opinion and in the likes of Thomas Walsh and Murphy we should be able to get some sort of platform. You never know after that. I'm not saying that win over Louth will change everything but it finally gives us a bit of a lift after all the shite over the years."

Off the field, things are finally taking shape too.

The county board is pumping resources into a 40-acre GAA site in Fenagh which is targeted for a Centre of Excellence. The board's once-strained relationship with supporters' group, Friends of Carlow, is stronger too after they contributed €100,000 to the official accounts last year.

The team recently enjoyed a bonding weekend in Johnstown House in Enfield which was invaluable.

They played Cavan and worked on fitness and took video analysis afterwards. Carlow's Irish rugby star Seán O'Brien, the European Player of the Year, participated in a few training sessions to maintain his own fitness and in turn increased morale in the camp which was already strong with the likes of Patrick Hickey travelling over and back from London to play for the side.

Along with Murphy, Hickey is the only other Carlow player to survive from the team that played Wexford in the 2005 championship.

It could be good that the rest are not constrained by the ties of history.

Sunday Indo Sport