Tuesday 20 November 2018

Back where they belong

Kevin Kimmage

IN 1889, during the second year of the All-Ireland football series, the competition was held between club teams playing under their county flag. So it's not that well known that the Queens County (as Laois were then known) team which lost to 'Tipperary' in the final were actually from the Portlaoise club.

Ninety years later, no team from Laois had won an All-Ireland title of any description until Portlaoise senior footballers defeated Roscommon's Clann na nGael to claim the Andy Merrigan Cup. Since then, Laois have won three All-Ireland minor titles. Two of those sides - 1996 and 2004 - were captained by Portlaoise men.

Ian Fitzgerald, the man who raised the Leinster Senior Championship cup last year for the first time in 57 years is a Portlaoise man too. He was one of eight players from the town on the senior panel that day. Alongside Carlow's Éire Óg, Portlaoise share the record as the most successful club in Leinster football. They are, by a mile, the most successful team in Laois, with 19 of their 23 county titles coming since 1964.

Portlaoise's success is based on their ability to think small. They possess the mentality and work ethic of a rural club

If this litany of Portlaoise achievement is becoming boring, then you are getting some inkling for the feelings of those clubs who have to compete against them week in, week out. Last year when they were beaten in the U21 county final, it's fair to say the result was greeted with a fair degree of celebration around the rest of the county. Portlaoise were bidding for their seventh successive title.

Those who don't fully appreciate their achievements point to their natural numerical advantage. The only established club in the largest town of a rural county; while smaller clubs mine talent like gold dust, Portlaoise have new players seemingly rolling through on a conveyor belt.

But if success on the sporting field was simply dictated by population, China should be perennial favourites to win the World Cup, the 'kingdom' of Gaelic football would be Dublin, and the sport in every county at club level would always be dominated by teams from the major towns.

The reality is that Portlaoise's success - like Dublin club Kilmacud, the team they face in today's Leinster semi-final - is based on their ability to think small. That is, they possess the mentality and work ethic of a rural club.

Two years ago, the club noticed that the number of kids opting to play hurling was declining. They conducted a survey among the town's primary schools and discovered that only four per cent of kids had ever played the game. Alarmed by the figures, they decided to address the problem, deploying club members to give up their own time and enter the schools to preach the creed of the camán.

"We have no problem coaching football in the town," says Portlaoise club chairman Niall Kavanagh. "Partly because the county is riding high at the moment and partly because it's that bit easier to play. But hurling is a more difficult prospect. If you don't catch them by the age of eight or nine they are lost to the game. So this year, the club hired a full-time coach to teach the skills of hurling in the schools all week long."

In the summer they brought the mountain to Mohammad, setting up a program called 'hurling on the greens' where they organised a tournament played around the greens of the housing estates from which the teams were formed. So it isn't a complete coincidence that Pat Critchley, the only Laois hurler ever to win an All Star, hails from the town; and this season, yet again, the club claimed the county's senior hurling and football championship double.

That the system of hard graft and heavy trawling pays dividends has been proven time and time again. Although his father was a keen sports fan, Tommy Conroy had no links to the club until he started to play their street leagues in the 1970s. The love affair was instant and long-lasting.

Nobody is quite sure how or when he picked up the nickname 'the legend' but it seemed appropriate. In many ways, his timing was a little unfortunate. Too young to play in the All-Ireland winning team of 1983, Conroy graduated two seasons later as the club's greatest team was entering its twilight years.

He still picked up two Leinster medals and, playing most of his football at midfield, soldiered on long enough to captain them when they ended an eight-year losing streak - the club's longest barren spell since the 1960s - in 1999.

Last season he finally hung up his boots, but fate dictated that the pipe and slippers would have to wait. The club manager, Mark Kavanagh, had stepped down after two seasons and when the club looked for a replacement, they didn't cast their net far.

"We don't have a strict policy (when recruiting managers) that it has to be one of our own, but if there is someone good from the club available, we'd certainly go to him first," says Portlaoise chairman Niall Kavanagh. Conroy was an obvious, if at first slightly reluctant, choice.

"As manager, Tommy brought a continuation of what we'd consider the Portlaoise values. He played with the club for so long, he was there on Leinster winning teams and though the club haven't been successful in Leinster over the last 15 years or so, we had a very good tradition and we needed someone who has come from that tradition, to instill it in the new lads coming up."

For a club that seemingly wins at will in Laois, hoping to re-live a glorious acquaintance with the provincial and All-Ireland championships, the brief seemed obvious. But Conroy refused to talk big on his arrival. "I know of a team in one of our neighbouring counties which started last year saying 'we're not preparing to win a county title, this team is preparing to win a Leinster title'," he says. "And they possibly had the players to do it, but they got beaten in the semi-final or final of the county championship. So you can never afford to think too far ahead.

"The thing about Portlaoise is that we'd have about eight fellows playing with the county seniors at any given time, and we have a strong hurling club as well, so we'd have eight or nine dual players. That's the way the club is formed and I'm not complaining about it, but it meant you had to just take things as they came.

"So when I started, my main objective was to try to get some consistency about the way we approached the games. That's something we had been lacking."

Another thing they lacked through the county championship was support. "If you go to a rural club before a county final you'll see flags flying all over the place," says Brian Delaney, who played on the club's first Leinster title winning side in 1971. "In Portlaoise, you'd barely get ten flags around the place. It's just part of being in a big town."

They don't tend to do the county board coffers many favours either. "When I was involved with the juvenile committee," says one former board officer, "your sole income was gained from the county final, and Portlaoise would get to a lot of them. But when they were playing, you wouldn't get enough money in the gate to cover your referee and match expenses."

Maybe the club are simply victims of their own success, or perhaps such apathy reflects the sad new way of the modern world. Yet a funny thing happens every time the town enters the open prairies of the Leinster championship. All those clubs in Laois who do their darndest to beat them every season suddenly row in behind them for the glory of the county, and their support base swells rapidly.

It was notable against Rhode last time out. It's sure to be seen again in Dr Cullen Park this afternoon. Tommy Conroy might be reluctant to admit it, but Portlaoise are back playing on the stage where they belong.

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