Penniless Portlaoise defying the odds
Joint-boss Lillis reveals how financial turmoil and tragedy have failed to halt push for glory
LIKE the prettiest girl in the class or the boy who had everything, Portlaoise were the envy of many.
Considering that they have recently won their seventh county football title in a row and their hurlers made a brave stab at the Laois double, they probably still are.
But never was there such a salutary tale of being careful about what you wish for. As they step forward to take on St Vincent's in tomorrow's Leinster Club SFC final in Tullamore, joint manager Mick Lillis tells it like it really is.
"We have no money for anything, the lads put in a few quid themselves each week to play," he reveals.
"Anything we need, things like DVD analysis, the lads pay for it themselves. They run their own players' fund. We're on a shoestring."
Nothing is more revealing about Portlaoise's shocking Celtic Tiger parable than their recent training regime.
The club's hubristic attempts to sell their 17-acre grounds beside O'Moore Park for €19m at the height of the boom came down like a house of cards and they're trapped beneath.
They train on the state of-the-art pitches at their new 39-acre grounds at Rathleague, but they only have prefabs there, so the players tend to come togged out and go straight home afterwards.
They're renting out their old grounds, beside O'Moore Park, to Laois GAA to help pay off their massive debts, but, in the build-up to this Leinster final, their seniors have returned to train there because their new grounds don't have floodlights.
The mistimed decision to buy those new grounds before they'd sold their old facility exploded in their faces.
They borrowed €6.5m from an investment company in Cork, which is still owed and, as Lillis sees it, "the banks and NAMA and all these people are very slow to deal with it, so we're kind of in a limbo."
They're not quite a ghost estate, but, in financial terms, Portlaoise GAA club is not far off the sporting equivalent.
However, there have been times in the past five years that these financial worries paled into insignificance compared to some real heartbreak.
John Mulligan, who managed them to their last Leinster title in 2009, is back on his feet now, but still undergoing treatment for a serious illness.
And this side also lost a beloved team-mate, Peter McNulty, to suicide three years ago.
The club was brought to its knees again four weeks ago by the sudden death of Gretta Kelly, whose son Adrian and husband Christy (physio) are vital members of this team.
Sometimes escaping onto a pitch to kick ball has provided the only solace for this group, who are jointly managed by Lillis and Mark Kavanagh, both members of the team that famously won a club All-Ireland in 1983.
"Absolutely. Football is the one thing that has kept us going," Lillis admits.
"It has given us an out, away from the drudgery and the heartbreak of what has happened off the park. It has kept the club together and kept the lads together; it has created a bond that will be together forever for these young lads."
There is nothing of the brash 'townie' stereotype about Lillis, a laid-back retired garda from Cooraclare.
He was playing senior football for Clare, but recovering from groin surgery, when he was first posted to Portlaoise in January 1980.
He threw his lot in with the local outfit while recovering and has great memories of that golden era.
Meeting Brian Mullins at a recent launch for tomorrow's game brought a broad grin to his face as he recalled playing St Vincent's in the 1984 Leinster semi-final.
"We drew with them up there; it went to a replay in Portarlington and I still feel the pain of him hitting me," he groans. "I kind of deserved it, I made the mistake of hitting first."
Lillis' son Kieran now stars for 'The town' and the county.
The big surprise is that more of the club's players haven't played for Laois in recent times.
"That's a complex one, Laois play a slightly different style than we do," Lillis reckons.
He also feels that when Portlaoise players can't break into the county starters, they are inclined to withdraw, with the knowledge that they'll still get competitive football with the club.
"I'd say a lot of it is also that we've had nobody from the club working with Laois at county board or managerial level, for a number of years.
"We seem to have been bypassed," he adds.
No club has won more Leinster titles than Portlaoise's seven.
They beat Skryne (2004) and Garrycastle (2009) in their last two finals, yet Dublin clubs have proved their nemeses in the last decade.
They lost last year's final to Ballymun; St Brigid's beat them in extra-time in a 2011 semi-final; Kilmacud ousted them in the 2010 quarter-finals and St Vincent's gave them a trimming in the 2007 semi-finals when Zach Tuohy (now playing Aussie Rules) was sent off for a second yellow.
The St Brigid's loss still haunts Lillis.
"We had an incredible goal chance just before half-time in extra-time. One of our lads inexplicably hand-passed it over the bar with Bruno (Brian McCormack) free on the edge of the square," he recalls.
"All it needed was the pass, that would have put us four points up.
"Kieran and Hugh Coghlan clashed in the middle of the field later, the ball broke and they went up and stuck it in our net. Small things turn big games."
Given all of Portlaoise's turmoil, on and off the pitch, winning an eighth Leinster tomorrow would mean more than anyone can explain and, throughout everything, their players and management have provided hope and perspective.
"We have to move on again," Lillis says stoically.
"While a lot of people would have an opinion on whether it (the club move) was needed, or what way it was done, the bottom line is, what's done is done.
"All we can do now is move on and look after the youth talent coming up to ensure a healthy future for the club."