Saturday 21 April 2018

We need to nurture our young talent rather than destroying it - Lillis

Laois manager Mick Lillis (SPORTSFILE)
Laois manager Mick Lillis (SPORTSFILE)

Michael Verney

Within seconds of talking with Laois football boss Mick Lillis you realise that he thinks deeper than most about the game. And when you have listened to political spin for weeks on end, a straight-shooter is like a fresh breeze.

The Clare native doesn't mince his words and after a long playing career mixed between the Banner and his adopted Laois, the "unique privilege" of being involved in an inter-county set-up is something he thrives on. His first Division 2 game didn't go to plan, a "shocking" display at home to Galway, but they bounced back to spring a surprise away to Armagh.

While acknowledging that the O'Moore County are in transition and blooding many young players, he refuses to conform to the general consensus that Laois are in a bad place and urges fans to keep the faith. Tomás Ó Flatharta's final game in charge, a qualifier defeat to an understrength Antrim side, broke the camel's back.

"Confidence was down," he notes. "Football in general in the county is not that well perceived at the minute and there's a lot of apathy among the supporters. So much so that when we play our home games we're outshouted by the opposition maybe three or four to one which is very disappointing.

"I suppose if we want to change that we have to get a few results but it's not easy at this level."

The well of underage success which previously bred optimism has dried up but Lillis believes it's not all doom and gloom, with quality young players coming through the ranks.

One example is Eoin Lowry. The Killeshin forward played a leading role as UCD took Sigerson honours and captained the U-21s to victory over Louth on Wednesday night hitting 1-4. But he is not currently in Laois' squad.

And the long-term, player-centric reason is a rarity in GAA circles.

"Eoin's a good lad. He did well in elite company with the Sigerson but he was pulled in all directions the last couple of years: playing colleges, playing county, club, U-21 and going from injury to injury," Lillis says candidly.

"Unfortunately there are lads being pulled all over the place between different teams and the only focus seems to be 'win what you're doing'. That's not being fair to the young lad and to me that's hugely important.

"You'll get more out of a chap in the long run if you're fair with him because he'll develop. He won't get burnt out. Instead he'll get a grá for it that maybe might change the other way if he's being pulled in too many directions. I'm a great believer in a little bit of stability.

"What Eoin is doing at the minute is working for him so I'd be inclined to leave him alone for the time being but he'll definitely be with us in the future. Young lads need to be nurtured so they can grow and develop."

Lillis' admiration for the commitment of inter-county footballers, particularly those plying their trade with slim hopes of silverware, has hit new levels since taking the job, and the retired Garda is excited to welcome Tyrone to O'Moore Park tomorrow.

But he realises they face a stiff task against "one of the top four teams in the country". Speaking of top teams, Lillis pulls no punches on his feelings regarding the funding disparity for weaker counties.

"We find it hard to compete with the likes of Dublin who have up to 50 coaches on the ground. In Laois, you have two," he reasons.

"Why the GAA chose to do that is absolutely beyond me. Why Laois, Offaly, Carlow, Kildare and the rest are less important than Dublin in terms of coaching facilities is a mystery I don't understand.

"Logic would suggest the gap will get wider. You would have to think that if the GAA continue to pump money into the bigger urban areas that the upside of that will be more players, a bigger base on the ground and more coming through at the highest level."

Odds may be stacked against the likes of Laois but honesty of mind and body will go a long way to breaching the gap. And in Lillis, they have an ideal role model.

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