Colm O'Rourke: Carlow footballers closing in on technicolour dreams
The world is changing. Carlow and Laois meet today in a Leinster semi-final while those who started out with greater aspirations fight through the back door. Of course the big dog looms, but for these counties it has been a spring of content - both promoted from the bottom division and now an even bigger day ahead for one.
Carlow have hogged the headlines in this year of seasonal madness. A long, cold, dark, wet winter which stretched into a summer of heat; from saturated fields to parched ground, when players would like a bit of give as it is hard on knees, ankles and backs. Even a minor fall could do damage and the criticism of Croke Park that it was too hard now is the norm everywhere and young players do seem to suffer more injuries, probably more through over use than anything else.
Carlow forward Paul Broderick scored 0-11 against Kildare, two from play, and never missed even one chance. He is a beautiful striker of the ball and I read last week he was detailing all the injuries which severely restricted his footballing career. All the usual ones were there and after a while I thought to myself that the only thing he has not had is haemorrhoids, all he needs is a bit of time on that one. Yet for all his problems he is a very natural and talented footballer.
On the management side, Turlough O'Brien is conducting a one-man advertising campaign on behalf of Carlow. He wants to turn it into the Mediterranean of the south-east. Maybe he could arrange the reopening of the old sugar factory too.
Anyway, his team blaze away and this rolling stone is gathering plenty of moss in the form of extra supporters. In many respects the Leinster Council would probably prefer Carlow to get to the final as every man, woman and child of all colours, race and religion would board the Croke Park express for a Leinster decider.
Nobody can ever put a value on the economic benefits of what a degree of success means for a county but there is no doubt that the feel-good factor in Carlow at the moment puts most people in better humour, which percolates through to all activity. The postman, the publican, the corner-shop owner and the farmer all have something to talk about while the good doctor in Leighlinbridge, Tom Foley, who doubles as the Carlow team doctor, has people queuing out the door.
No aches or pains but lots of views on zonal defence and whether or not Carlow should push right up on the Laois kick-out. A man down from the mountains for the first time in years reckoned one of the Carlow forwards should get Laois goalkeeper Graham Brody in a headlock when he goes on one of his sallies up-field. He thought it would put manners on him as leaving his goal was a treasonable offence when he was playing back in the 1960s, and on top of that Carlow could slip in a goal when he was being held outfield. He also felt that the referee would not notice. The doctor prescribed some tablets and told him to come back in 2020.
On the other hand, Carlow's opponents Laois have had to do without much in the way of publicity, even though they are Division 4 champions and within touching distance of a Leinster final. Manager John Sugrue presides over an oasis of calm in a county which has often been only one bad performance away from a major fallout. Perhaps beating Wexford after extra time and Westmeath does not look nearly as good as Carlow toppling Kildare but both have ended up in the same place. The Kingstons and John O'Loughlin will do a lot of the heavy lifting today and Laois must feel there is no reason that they should not confirm the earlier league final result.
Carlow had no wides against Kildare last time out which must constitute some sort of record, although there was probably something similar going back to the times when there were no lines on the pitches, players wore long trousers, hob-nailed boots and woollen caps. There were not too many scores then either and everyone just chased the ball. It will seem a bit like that today too at times and it is likely to be close but most people's interest will be to see if the wanderly wagon from Carlow can continue.
In Clones, Donegal - and probably Down - have higher aspirations. The Super 8 gets very close for the winner and whether they will say it or not both would fancy their chances in the Ulster final against Fermanagh. That is for another day. Fermanagh are a bit like Carlow in that they gather few friends with their style of play but the reaction after their wins confirms that, within the boundaries of their counties at least, winning rather than entertainment is key. Look at the joy after last Sunday's game when Fermanagh landed the sucker punch to Monaghan. The scenes on the pitch between players and supporters showed a tribe united and they did not care about the manner of victory.
It is up to everyone else to counteract this style of play and Monaghan played like a team who thought it would happen without going through the pain of grinding out a result.
Monaghan are a great team to get themselves up for a game with a side who may look superior to them but fail to rouse themselves sufficiently for games like last Sunday. Fermanagh identified this weakness and good luck to them for that but they won't win any prizes for flowing football.
Donegal and Down have changed a bit recently. There is a greater emphasis on attack and early on in the league it was apparent that Donegal, in particular, have decided to use a bit more forward momentum. It has meant that the back door has been left open which would have caused consternation a few years ago.
Yet the new brigade like Eoin Bán Gallagher, Caolan Ward and Jamie Brennan like to get forward at pace and this new-look Donegal squad, with Paddy McBrearty, Ryan McHugh, Odhrán MacNiallais and Michael Murphy looking highly motivated, are a threat further afield, if not this year then very shortly. This is potentially a very good Donegal team.
It has been a rough few years for Eamon Burns in charge of Down. There is no glory in this job at the moment and reviving the giant will take longer than his tenure. For all of Down's swashbuckling success there have always been long periods of struggling in the dark. This is one of them.
Just like most other counties, it is not getting better anytime soon. There is still Kevin McKernan to drive forward from a sweeping position, Caolan Mooney will supply jet-engine speed and Connaire Harrison, Conor Maginn, Donal O'Hare and Shay Millar are natural scoring forwards who seem to do less defending this year.
This should be a more open game than normal in present-day Ulster football with a lot of good forwards on show. Down are relying on experienced players but Donegal have got an injection of fearless young players who have inspired a positive response from their more experienced colleagues. It should be enough to ease them into the final.
Sunday Indo Sport