€2k Pakistani gamble beginning to pay off for Laois star Darren Strong
Darren Strong took a chance in business and it's starting to pay off, writes Jackie Cahill
Darren Strong isn't a gambler in the strict sense of the word. The odd flutter on weekend soccer is the height of it.
But he has no problem taking chances and that's where the distinction lies.
Two years ago, Strong wired €2,000 to Pakistan, the recipient a man he'd never met before, as he looked to get a new business off the ground.
Strong's first order was 500 pairs of football gloves and after sending the money via Western Union, he waited, and waited, and waited some more.
He smiles: "He was a week late with my first order and I was, oh shite, I've been bulled here."
But the sweat was worth it and now Strong's relationship with his Pakistan contact has evolved to a point where his account is in credit.
The Emo man's business, DS Sports, is thriving and yet he only spoke to his supplier for the first time six months ago. The vast majority of business is done through mobile phone app Viber.
Strong recalls: "I was always in dressing rooms looking at lads wanting gloves. My first idea was to put a vending machine in the dressing room and fill it with gloves but that was too dear to get going.
"My dad had his reservations about the business originally but now he's suggesting that I get a loan to build a sports shop and expand."
The DS Sports range now includes beanie hats, tops and ski pants. Strong's targeted local clubs in various codes and there's been interest too from abroad.
"Since January 1, I've had orders from England, Canada, Australia."
And yet Strong's weekly wage comes from his father's precast concrete business, his bread and butter since leaving school. John Strong is one of the current selectors with the Laois football team alongside manager Mick Lillis and boasts a strong reputation in his own right. Darren was captain and John a mentor when Emo won the Laois intermediate crown in 2012.
But John's been involved with other teams in the county too, including Clonaslee St Manman's and Courtwood, and was manager in 2004 when Emo lost to Portlaoise in the senior decider.
Darren remembers how John was "like a big child" when Lillis asked him to come on board with the county senior team for 2016.
"He asked me what I thought he should do and I said 'no' straight away!
"I'm out here working with you and I don't want to be stuck with you every evening as well! Then I thought about it and when is he ever going to get the chance again?
"The lads aren't going to slag me because I'm there a good few years."
Strong, now 30, made his championship debut against Meath in 2010, a relatively late starter who had to work hard for his chance.
There wasn't much to write home about during his underage career and as a minor he was told that he was too slow to make the grade.
That fuelled a burning desire in Strong to prove his detractors wrong and he reckons that for the guts of two years, he pounded the roads and woods of his native Emo.
Still, obstacles lay in his way as Strong was pigeon-holed as a wing-forward before Sean Dempsey, who took a chance on him at senior level, suggested that he gave wing-back a shot.
"He says, 'Look, you can run all day' and I said, 'Right, I'll give it a go'.
"I knew myself that it wasn't working out wing-forward and if I stayed there, I wouldn't be playing. I actually started wing-forward on my first day but since then, I've been wing-back."
As he prepares for a new season with Laois, and Sunday's Division 2 opener against Galway at O'Moore Park, Strong still struggles to erase the memories of the last time the county played a competitive game at the Portlaoise venue.
Last June, Laois were seemingly cruising to victory against Antrim there in the All-Ireland qualifier before the Saffrons came from nine points down at one stage to win by two.
"It was low, to go from the first Kildare game, which we should have won, to that.
"We were all over them (Antrim), but we were naïve at the end and silly mistakes killed us. You can't say you took a team for granted but there are no words to describe the second half.
"We were like a junior team finishing up. No disrespect to Antrim but there's no way you should be losing the game like that, especially on your home pitch.
"Even the Leinster Championship replay against Kildare was a shock to the system, well on top at half-time and then they got 2-3 in four minutes.
"We thought we'd beat Kildare, they're big rivals, and I don't know then what was in lads' minds going into the Antrim game."
Manager at the time, Tomás ó Flatharta, left the ground without speaking to the press and confirmed his departure a couple of days later.
ó Flatharta had shipped heavy local criticism throughout his reign but as far as Strong is concerned, the buck stopped with the players on that one.
"Lads say blame managers but I think you've to blame the players," he insists. "What happened in the second half that day was 100 per cent our fault."
There was some solace for Strong when Emo reached another county senior football final, unlucky to win at the first attempt before losing the replay heavily to Portlaoise.
Drained of energy, Strong admits that he wasn't "too pushed" about going back in with Laois at the start of the year but some time out recharged the batteries.
"Look, I'm still well able to keep up with the boys and pride myself on being able to outrun the younger lads so I'm happy enough. My bar would be to know that I'm fitter than the man I'm marking.
"In 2014, I went out to mark Dublin's Diarmuid Connolly and I had nightmares before it, wondering what I was going to do and how I was going to mark him.
"So I said I'd take him running around Croke Park and I had two points scored in the first ten minutes, and should have had a third.
"He had to follow me and it worked out well. That's all I have in my head, to be fitter than any man I'm marking."
Ultimately, Dublin won that game comfortably and Strong admits that while the Sky Blues have certain 'advantages', he's an admirer of their play.
"They are class, Jesus, even last year, they looked unstoppable but you see Longford giving them a kick in the arse in the O'Byrne Cup and they had a strong enough team out.
"They do have advantages, they're like a Premiership team and every week you look at the paper and they're doing things. There's serious sponsorship coming in whereas our lads probably have to go and raise a bit of money.
"There's maybe ten of our lads on building sites and it's not easy.
"The quality of their (Dublin) player is class though, and the pick they have.
"But you can't be overawed by them either. You wouldn't be going out there thinking, 'What are we going to hold them to', you'd be thinking, 'We're going out to beat them'. Years are lost if you go out thinking the other way."
The Dubs potentially lie in wait in a Leinster quarter-final if Laois can get over Wicklow first time out. But before that, Strong is focusing on a positive Division 2 campaign. Time to take some more risks.