Tuesday 20 August 2019

Vincent Hogan: 'Laois had been described as soft mentally, even physically. And they wanted to put that right'

Old wounds are forgotten as Brennan leads O'Moore men back to Croke Park

Pádraig Delaney celebrates with supporters following
Laois’s famous win. Photo: Sam Barnes/Sportsfile
Pádraig Delaney celebrates with supporters following Laois’s famous win. Photo: Sam Barnes/Sportsfile
Vincent Hogan

Vincent Hogan

On Wednesday morning, his attention drawn to the Facebook comments of a former Dublin hurler, Niall Corcoran felt a need to ring Mattie Kenny.

The comments implied he'd been somehow disrespectful towards Dublin's management last Sunday in those wild, unhinged seconds confirming Laois's passage to a first All-Ireland quarter-final since 1979. This startled and troubled him in equal measure.

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A former team-mate of many of the players, he could see now being subjected to puerile commentary on social media, Corcoran's respect for them and for fellow Galwayman - Kenny - compelled him to pick up the phone.

The Facebook attack focused on his paid position as a Games' Promotions Officer with Kilmacud Crokes, insinuating some kind of betrayal implicit now in his celebration of a result so stinging to Dublin hurling.

To Corcoran's relief, Kenny expressed incredulity at the attack, dismissing it as "a solo run" and referencing his own position just three weeks earlier in Parnell Park as Dublin effectively evicted his native county from the championship.

"I wasn't gesticulating at the Dublin management," Corcoran stresses now. "But when I read that, I just thought, 'Is that the feeling?' So I thought it best to clear the air with Mattie. It wasn't about beating Dublin for me. It was about Laois winning. There's a difference. And that's exactly what Mattie said to me.

Laois manager Eddie Brennan and selector Niall Corcoran after Joe McDonagh Cup victory over Westmeath. Photo: Daire Brennan/Sportsfile
Laois manager Eddie Brennan and selector Niall Corcoran after Joe McDonagh Cup victory over Westmeath. Photo: Daire Brennan/Sportsfile

"That's all it was. Anybody who thinks otherwise, doesn't know me or doesn't understand the grá I have for Dublin and Dublin hurlers. But that's the stuff that maybe comes with this and you'd just hate that perception. Look, I was just elated at the way we won the game, knowing the stuff we had to go through to get to that level."

* * * * *

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They didn't go far to celebrate, crossing the road from O'Moore Park to Portlaoise Golf Club for a barbecue and a few slabs of beer.

Most assumed that that would be how they'd anoint a liberating season. Joe McDonagh champions signing off obligingly so that hurling's big-hitters could have the stage. Except Laois were still standing, all that "stuff" Corcoran referred to now feeding a subversive energy around them.

He didn't exactly know Eddie Brennan that Wednesday morning last September they sat for three hours or more in Dundrum Town Centre, talking about strictly abstract things. True, they'd been in one another's company some months earlier in The Boar's Head pub on Capel Street, Brennan and Anthony Daly dipping in from 'The Sunday Game' studio to join him and Ryan O'Dwyer for a pint.

They'd marked one another at different times in their county careers too. But that Dundrum meeting would seal an improbable leap of faith.

Laois? If Brennan imagined they could become a Cinderella story, his faith was soon challenged by a fractious county final that left one of their best hurlers, Rathdowney-Errill's Ross King, with horrific facial injuries.

The incident seemed faithful to a broad stereotype of hurling in the county. Laois had no shortage of good men, but something in their DNA kept pulling them apart. Corcoran's own experience of hurling against Laois was, he remembers, referenced by an assumption that "they could have been got at from a discipline point of view".

For all that, he had hurled directly too against fine players like Tommy Fitzgerald (now a selector), Cha Dwyer and Matthew Whelan (two of Sunday's heroes). He was also familiar with the missionary spirit of men like 'Cheddar' Plunkett and Pat Critchley, a spirit bound to the belief that Laois needed to have more faith in themselves.

In a 2013 Leinster semi-final, Plunkett's Laois ran defending champions Galway to seven points. Next day out, Clare beat them so heavily, Dómhnall O'Donovan would be the butt of Banner jokes as their only outfield player failing to register a score.

And maybe that was the accepted rhythm of Laois hurling. One step forward, three steps back.

Not a single player spoke that first night in early October the new management team addressed them at the county board offices in Portlaoise. Maybe the two most stirring speeches belonged to Fitzgerald and fellow selector Fran Dowling. The Laois men on Brennan's ticket.

But this would be no velvet revolution.

By Christmas, the buy-in was - at best - equivocal. A few senior players stepped away, communicating indifference. Some were openly scornful of the idea of hard, collective training so far removed from a competitive game. One young player announced that, irrespective of progress, he'd be heading to America with friends for the summer.


Numbers at training were, accordingly, poor. Some who did attend, weren't even always in the best shape to participate.

Brennan called another meeting in early January, the project essentially close to crisis. And that would be the evening Laois hurling found its pulse.

Corcoran recalls: "It was put back to the players that night, how did they want to be identified as a group of hurlers? What did they want to stand for? And one word that kept coming up was 'soft'. A number of players used it. They'd been described as soft mentally, even physically. And they wanted to put that right.

"Regardless of how the year went, they wanted to be identified as a team that wouldn't lie down. That was powerful coming from them. It felt a turning point.

"Because we were definitely worried in December. They basically had a decision to make. And coming from an environment like Dublin or, especially, Kilkenny we definitely struggled to understand that mentality of guys not wanting to train before Christmas.

"One big thing that Eddie brought in was people should expect to be held accountable. And the behaviour definitely changed. Small things. Players started to come to training ahead of time. They started to ask questions.

"You could see some of them going to the nutritionist, going to the S&C coach, looking for extra bits or coming to people like Fran or Tommy or myself for feedback on how they could improve. And once the behaviour started to change, you knew they had a different mindset."

That mindset would be challenged, most notably in early league hammerings from Galway and Waterford. But they pushed Dublin to two points on a foul day in Parnell Park and got to the quarter-finals, albeit then slipping under the wheels of a rampant Limerick. That was the day, watching from a bar in Puerto Rico, the disaffected King decided the Laois dressing-room mightn't be the worst place to return to.

And since?

Maybe their toughest McDonagh Cup game was an opening round trip to Tullamore on May 11 and a monumental battle with Offaly that they managed to win by four points in the end. But Laois, pretty much, haven't taken a backward glance since.

"You have to remember, there's been a lot of negativity around them for the last few years," says Corcoran. "They've had to listen to a lot within their own county about who they are and what they're about. And that's been hard to take.

"That word 'soft' kept coming into the conversation. It was their word. They weren't talking about going out to take the head off a lad. They were talking about being mentally strong and being able to compete physically.

"Psychologically, when you're being told the whole time that you're not good enough, that you're wasting your time, it does stick. And it takes time to change that. So this has to go back to the players. Because they decided that they wanted something better.

"They decided to change."

* * * * *

Maybe beer and song and selfies with Buff Egan don't amount to any textbook way to prepare for a wounded Tipperary when the window of preparation is, again, a solitary week.

But the energy shimmering off Laois just now is as much to do with the glue of friendship as the detail of elite sport. Brennan's leadership has been illuminating in its recognition of a need to let players savour their changed circumstance as distinct from becoming tyrannised by it.

The only gamble of letting them celebrate their McDonagh Cup win was that it might invite old weaknesses back into the psyche. That didn't happen. The gamble of those drinks last Sunday? None.

"It felt just as important to celebrate the win as go out and train on Tuesday," says Corcoran. "We could easily have sent them home. 'Right lads, Tipperary...' But you have to acknowledge what they've put into it and what they've achieved.

"If you put in all that work and you're not allowed celebrate it, then it just becomes robotic. It's the wrong environment. I've learnt that too. Sunday night was just a release. Sometimes, mentally, that can be almost as important as the pool."

He has watched the vitriol of social media splash all round Dublin's beaten men this week, feeling only dismay at the noise of faceless people.

Corcoran shook as many Dublin hands as he could in Portlaoise last Sunday, but words were always going to be difficult.

"Like I've won a Leinster Championship with Conal Keaney and Paul Ryan and Alan Nolan and Danny Sutcliffe," he says now. "These guys are just absolute warriors.

"And my own clubmates, like Oisín (O'Rorke) and Fergal (Whiteley) and Ronan (Hayes)... it's not easy because I'm invested in improving Dublin hurling too. I'm completely immersed in it.

"It's very easy to slate them now and slate Mattie now. But I genuinely believe there's more strength in depth in Dublin hurling now than when we won a Leinster Championship. Remember they were missing (Eoghan) O'Donnell, (Liam) Rushe. Mark Schutte has been injured all year. You think of someone like Donal Burke who wasn't involved this year.


"It's very important the Dublin hurling public stays behind these men. Because, trust me, there's huge characters there."

They met Cheddar on Sunday night and his mantra was that this cannot be a once-off for Laois now. He might have been singing Eddie Brennan's gospel. Corcoran is hopeful. "You saw Mark Kavanagh barely able to walk off the pitch," he says. "Willie Dunphy chasing down what looked a dead ball for the goal. Cha Dwyer winning balls he had no right to win.

"This is an ambitious group and their deep, underlying motivation is, 'We're going to show we're not soft!' It's just phenomenal what that's bringing out of them. They're showing themselves to be people of substance. Not flaky.

"And that was the most pleasing thing about last Sunday's win from a management point of view. The team hurled and thought its way to victory. It wasn't a smash-and-grab job. It wasn't down to a flukey goal.

"Maybe I did jump around like a child at the end, but only because I knew what these fellas had put in. We all knew."

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