Thursday 18 July 2019

Laois star Ross King: 'I was drinking a cocktail watching the match and saying to meself, 'F**k it, I should've been out there'

Ross King celebrates the Laois victory over Dublin in O'Moore Park in Portlaoise. Photo: Sam Barnes/Sportsfile
Ross King celebrates the Laois victory over Dublin in O'Moore Park in Portlaoise. Photo: Sam Barnes/Sportsfile
Michael Verney

Michael Verney

He can't remember what type of exotic cocktails he was sipping as this year's league quarter-final between Limerick and Laois popped up on television when holidaying in Puerto Rico, but it caused Ross King to have a eureka moment.

An incident in last year's Laois SHC final defeat to Camross where the butt of a hurl went through his face guard and smashed a couple of teeth - as well as the unsavoury fall-out which ensued - soured his interest in donning the Laois jersey again.

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The initial call from new boss Eddie Brennan to continue his Laois involvement was declined and with no inter-county commitments tying him down, last year's skipper set off for Gran Canaria where he would unusually rediscover his mojo.

"I was drinking a cocktail watching the match and saying to meself, 'Jesus Christ, this is a crazy different turn of events and I should be out there.' Towards the end of the game I was like, 'F**k it, I should've been out there'," King recalls.

"I wanted to be out there. I can drink and go on holidays and bo**** around for the rest of my life. You only have so many years hurling so I said I should try and make as many memories as I can. I was thinking I'd love to look back in 30 or 40 years and be part of something special."

Little did he know during a difficult winter - which saw him play soccer with Kilkenny side Evergreen - that the "best week of my life" would soon await but King wasn't in a frame of mind to contemplate a return to the O'Moore men. His appetite had disappeared and a game he loved now resembled unwanted hardship.

"I probably wasn't in the right frame of mind to go bald-headed into it and get the body right ploughing through the winter slog. I was a little cynical to it maybe and thinking, 'What is this about?'" he recalls.

"I remember being in the dentist's chair getting injections into the roof of my mouth and getting my teeth pulled back the first day and I said, 'F**king hell, nothing is worth this pain'. I pulled away maybe because I hadn't the hunger for what I knew was required. I'd be an all-in kind of fella and I didn't feel like I had the hunger to do it all by the book, as it needs to be done."

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Another phone call came from Brennan in mid-April on the back of a club league game he had attended and having rediscovered the "grá" for the small ball, there was no hesitation to answer the call.

"If Eddie didn't ring me, I wouldn't be there. It was the only league game I actually played well in and Eddie came to watch it. I was as sharp as a spoon playing for the club the first few weeks and then I played well that night," the 25-year-old recalls. "It was either luck or fate that Eddie was there, rang me the next day and we met up in The Horse & Jockey Hotel. He asked me in and when I saw his enthusiasm for it, I said I'd take it with two hands.

"He was just pure mad for Laois hurling. He gave me a full lowdown of every tactic they had played all year, went through the whole thing. We were there for two hours and Eddie spoke for an hour and 55.

"We were drinking coffee and the bowl of sugar cubes was in front of us and he was going through puck-out strategies and game-plans using the sugar cubes. Eddie had me bought and sold after two seconds."

How fortunate he is to have been part of Laois' subsequent Joe McDonagh Cup success - as well as their historic defeat of Dublin - isn't lost on him and he has every intention of enjoying every bit of it.

King was the last man to leave the O'Moore Park pitch - only heading for the dressing room when Brennan was addressing his victorious squad - and having watched on from afar, it meant even more to him that most.

"We're always looking from the outside in the whole time at these things, RTÉ cameras and interviews in front of big crowds, we're normally looking at everyone else doing it. And now it's us in the middle of it, Laois hurling is in the spotlight," he beams.

"It's absolutely beautiful what's going on.

"I went in to get an ice-cream and the first three newspapers I saw had pictures of Ryan Mullaney and Paddy Purcell's heads. I usually wouldn't want to see their heads 'cos I see them every night of the week."

"It's unreal to see Laois jerseys everywhere, it's the stuff of dreams. For any county that's down in the dumps for a while and you get a bit of a rise, the whole county is on a wave and we're all in flying form."

Those moments among the Laois faithful will never leave him.

"If you could bottle that feeling and sell it, you'd be the richest man in the world. The kids out on the field after the match must have asked for everything bar me underpants, they were unreal. Everyone getting photos, the simple things of giving a selfie or getting an autograph.

"Other lads might take it for granted but that type of thing doesn't come around at all for us. I'd say I haven't signed five hurls in the last five years but I'd a sore hand leaving the field."

Only with maturity does King realise the need to exploit this success and after visiting Cúl Camps across the county, he hopes it rubs off on future generations of Laois hurling.

"They are seeing Laois players coming in with cups; if I'd seen a cup coming into a camp when I was 11 or 12, I'd have wet meself. Hopefully, we can harness it from the roots up.

Flying

"If they see the senior county team flying it and going on to Croke Park against these big teams, they'll look at us as opposed to maybe Tipp and Cork, the local heroes might be their heroes as opposed to the Seamie Callanans or Cian Lynches."

Having waited 15 years to reach Croke Park, Laois are back again just two weeks later with the Glanbia sales rep still finding it a bit difficult to comprehend.

His first time on the sacred sod at GAA HQ was an hour before the McDonagh final but this Sunday, they return for an All-Ireland quarter-final against traditional aristocrats Tipperary hoping to deliver another memorable display.

"We're going up against Tipp on Sunday and Kilkenny and Cork are nearly a curtain-raiser to us, it's a gallery the whole thing. Please God, we perform and we can walk out having done ourselves justice," he says.

"We've some of the best hurlers in the country and people are only starting to see them now. We might have feared playing the likes of Tipp before but now we're full of confidence and we'll just embrace it.

"Boys are in the form of their lives. 'Cheddar' (Plunkett) texted me and said, 'This isn't bonus territory, this is where you should be anyway', and that's the frame of mind we're in.

"We'll get back to it at training this week. All I hope is that we come out with our heads held high and do ourselves justice. If we do, I guarantee it'll be a very competitive game."

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