Wednesday 17 July 2019

Eamonn Sweeney: 'Brennan-led Laois miracle shows need for a six-team Leinster series'

Lack of coverage of famous triumph reflects poor treatment of hurling's 'second-tier' sides

7 July 2019; Ross King of Laois, centre, celebrates with Conor Phelan, left, and Laois manager Eddie Brennan, right, following the GAA Hurling All-Ireland Senior Championship preliminary round quarter-final match between Laois and Dublin at OMoore Park in Portlaoise, Laois. Photo by Sam Barnes/Sportsfile
7 July 2019; Ross King of Laois, centre, celebrates with Conor Phelan, left, and Laois manager Eddie Brennan, right, following the GAA Hurling All-Ireland Senior Championship preliminary round quarter-final match between Laois and Dublin at OMoore Park in Portlaoise, Laois. Photo by Sam Barnes/Sportsfile
Joe Phelan puts his body on the line to block Dublin’s Cian Boland. Photo: Piaras Ó Mídheach/Sportsfile
Laois goalkeeper Enda Rowland celebrates
Manager Eddie Brennan shows his delight at the final whistle
Eamonn Sweeney

Eamonn Sweeney

There are surprises, there are shocks and then there's what happened in Portlaoise yesterday.

Laois's defeat of Dublin belongs in a very small category of paradigm-shifting upsets. Like Galway's win over Cork in 1975, Offaly's against Kilkenny in 1980 and Antrim's over Offaly in 1989, it showed we'd all got the hurling championship wrong.

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This victory didn't just make a mockery of the past and enliven the present. It changed the future. All week one bookmaker had been offering odds on next Sunday's quarter-final between Tipperary and Dublin.

The 3/1 on the Dubs looks a bit ungenerous now. It's like Laois got into a time machine, jumped a week ahead and ensured an apparently inevitable meeting wouldn't take place after all.

The bookies weren't the only ones who got a bit previous. Everyone's mind had jumped ahead to the Tipp-Dublin match. Anyone who said, "That's if Dublin beat Laois," said it in the same way that you say, "If we're all still alive this time next week," when arranging to meet up for a drink. There was no real belief in the unthinkable happening.

It's 14 years since Laois beat Dublin in the championship. Two years ago a Dublin side in disarray were still able to beat them by 16 points in the qualifiers.

Dublin seemed to have improved a lot since then. They came into this game after a victory over Galway and a draw with Wexford. In the league they'd topped their division, beat Tipperary in the quarter-finals and ran Limerick to three points in the semi.

Laois had won one game out of five in the same division. In their previous championship match in Portlaoise, they needed two injury-time points to scrape a draw with Westmeath.

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Laois did win the subsequent Joe McDonagh Cup final but Cork showed the difference between that competition and the proper stuff when scoring 40 points against Westmeath yesterday. Forty, for crying out loud. Why were such teams still in the championship with Clare and Galway knocked out?

The Mullingar massacre brought the average winning margin in games between the third-placed provincial teams and the Joe McDonagh Cup finalists to 19 points.

7 July 2019; Ryan Mullaney of Laois celebrates with supporters following the GAA Hurling All-Ireland Senior Championship preliminary round quarter-final match between Laois and Dublin at O’Moore Park in Portlaoise, Laois. Photo by Sam Barnes/Sportsfile
7 July 2019; Ryan Mullaney of Laois celebrates with supporters following the GAA Hurling All-Ireland Senior Championship preliminary round quarter-final match between Laois and Dublin at O’Moore Park in Portlaoise, Laois. Photo by Sam Barnes/Sportsfile

Superlatives

As Laois took the field yesterday, the round they were playing in was probably an endangered species. Many deserved superlatives were lavished on Davy Fitzgerald last week yet what Eddie Brennan has achieved puts the Wexford boss in the ha'penny place. We won't see the like of it for a long time.

When Eamonn Kelly resigned as manager this week last year, Laois were in rag order. Westmeath, Kerry and Carlow had beaten them in the Joe McDonagh Cup and only a win over Meath in their final game prevented relegation to the Christy Ring Cup. As Carlow and Westmeath kicked on, Laois were languishing.

Like their neighbours Offaly, Laois are trying to be a dual county with a population scarcely big enough to make an impression in one code.

Their minors played in Leinster's second tier this year, their under 20s lost to Kilkenny by 26 points three weeks ago. It's 23 years since a club from the county won a senior provincial championship. The most encouraging thing you could have said about Brennan's assignment was that he was unlikely to be crushed by the weight of expectation.

Yesterday he faced a team representing the GAA's juggernaut county, one we're assured gets its act together to an extent which puts others to shame. It's expected that before too long Dublin will make the great leap forward in hurling as they have done in football.

Yet Brennan, the product of a county where getting the maximum from teams is the local art form, contrived a victory which still seems unthinkable even after it's happened.

It's a victory to be celebrated because the decline of Offaly has robbed hurling of a serious county when such losses can hardly be afforded.

Carlow might have drawn with Galway in this year's league but no-one really believed any of the second-echelon sides could topple one of the big guns when things got serious.

Now Laois have struck a massive blow for these counties, made a good argument for a six-team Leinster Championship next year and saved the good name of the Joe McDonagh Cup.

7 July 2019; Ryan Mullaney of Laois celebrates with supporters following the GAA Hurling All-Ireland Senior Championship preliminary round quarter-final match between Laois and Dublin at OMoore Park in Portlaoise, Laois. Photo by Sam Barnes/Sportsfile
7 July 2019; Ryan Mullaney of Laois celebrates with supporters following the GAA Hurling All-Ireland Senior Championship preliminary round quarter-final match between Laois and Dublin at OMoore Park in Portlaoise, Laois. Photo by Sam Barnes/Sportsfile

It says everything about the general disdain towards hurling's lesser lights that this already legendary game was not shown on RTÉ.

After all the whining about the award of matches to Sky, they couldn't even find it a slot on TG4. 'Flicka', a 1958 movie about the friendship between a girl and her pony, could probably have waited.

Paucity

Not to worry. In years to come, the paucity of documentary evidence will lend the events of what happened on July 7, 2019 an even more miraculous patina.

Moving statues will seem a minor infringement of the laws of nature by comparison. So many Laois people will lie about having been there, future generations will wonder how they got 40,000 into O'Moore Park.

Now Brennan's men face Tipperary, 70 years after the counties met in an All-Ireland final which Tipp won by 17 points.

Most people will expect a similar margin on Sunday but perhaps the bookies could hold off on the Tipperary-Wexford odds till next week.

7 July 2019; Ryan Mullaney of Laois celebrates with supporters following the GAA Hurling All-Ireland Senior Championship preliminary round quarter-final match between Laois and Dublin at O’Moore Park in Portlaoise, Laois. Photo by Sam Barnes/Sportsfile
7 July 2019; Ryan Mullaney of Laois celebrates with supporters following the GAA Hurling All-Ireland Senior Championship preliminary round quarter-final match between Laois and Dublin at O’Moore Park in Portlaoise, Laois. Photo by Sam Barnes/Sportsfile

It would be a sign of respect. And if ever a team deserved respect it's this Laois outfit. A few days after the reappearance of the world's finest sci-fi show, they've propelled the Hurling Championship into the Upside Down with Number Eleven, Mark Kavanagh, using his special powers to do more damage on the scoresheet than anyone else.

You won't see many 'Stranger Things' than this result.

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