T EN years ago, Conal Keaney made his entrance to the Leinster senior hurling championship as a substitute against Laois at Nowlan Park. Though only 18, and preparing for his Leaving Cert, his coming had been well signalled; already he had acquired poster-boy status for Dublin's putative underage revolution.
That year he starred in an historic Dublin colleges' Leinster breakthrough and the capital's young hurlers generally were making promising advances.
In his relatively short time on Nowlan Park in 2001, Keaney showed flashes of his talent, but the day would be governed by misfortune. Dublin led by six points at one stage and were two in front when Paul Cuddy scored a goal from a generous distance and the summer was over for Kevin Fennelly's team. It was the year of the blueprint for Dublin hurling, of talk and promises and big plans. Dublin underage hurling was progressing but at senior level it would have to go through several circles of Hell to be where it is now.
Over that time Dublin and Laois developed a close relationship defined by a common struggle and shared hardship. Clare and Wexford had made fairytale re-emergences in the 1990s but the next decade was a reaffirmation of the traditional oligarchy; Kilkenny, Cork and Tipp returned with a vengeance. In a Leinster championship virtually monopolised by Kilkenny, Laois and Dublin played out private little sideshows. They inhabited a place resolutely second tier. There was rarely much to separate them.
As they prepare to face another of that ilk, Antrim, in the first round of the Leinster championship next Saturday, Laois may be forgiven for casting an envious eye on Dublin a week ago. Suddenly, the gap has widened and Dublin have moved on and left them behind. Over the first six summers of the last decade the counties met six times in the Leinster senior championship, including two replays. Dublin won a replayed encounter by four points in 2000, lost the next year to Cuddy's late goal, and drew again in 2003 before winning the replay. In 2005, they lost by four clear goals to Laois. By then, Keaney had gone and hurling at senior level was something of a shambles.
But Dublin's underage project provided a spring that meant the senior well never ran totally dry. If 2005 was a grim year for the senior hurlers, crushed by Laois and having lost Keaney, the wounds were nursed by the minors winning a first Leinster title since 1983. In the semi-finals they defeated Kilkenny and in the vanquished county there was a small outcry. A year later, they would win the All-Ireland colleges A title with the combined schools, and a year after that a Leinster under 21 title was captured in the most thrilling and epic fashion at Parnell Park when Peadar Carton's bullet-goal closed an unforgettable sequence of play.
Gradually the seniors cranked up the gears, Keaney returned from a six-year exile, and now Laois have lost ground. As they prepare for Antrim next Saturday, they know that Dublin no longer inhabits the same place in the class system. The Laois development squad system is catching up but for a long time it has been trailing Dublin's, which surged ahead in the last decade while the counties' senior teams were arguing over small change.
While Dublin began to overtake Offaly and Wexford in Leinster minor and under 21 championships in the last decade, Laois struggled to avoid being surpassed by new challengers. Carlow defeated them in the 2002 and 2006 minor championship. Last year they lost to Westmeath at minor and went down to the same opposition again recently. But their standards are improving and they feel they have found a system that is producing better players and better results.
In 2009, their minors defeated Dublin in the Leinster championship. Minor teams can vary in quality year-on-year but Dublin had earned a respected reputation through their development squads and Laois were entitled to draw comfort from that. Pat Critchley, Laois coaching and games manager, has been instrumental in creating the underage structures to help the county make up for lost time.
The Setanta programme has targeted kids from 10 years up to the first year of the development squads to teach them better technique and touch than their predecessors. The idea has also been about broadening the game's reach. On both counts he feels that, five years into the programme, they have achieved results.
"We felt our players weren't skilful enough to be starting at under 14 development level which is why we started the Setanta programme. You have to build structures and can't be relying on having a good crop of players every ten or 20 years. You are never going to make the breakthrough that way. You build the right structures, and then an Anthony Daly can make a difference.
"If in ten years' time people are saying 'jaysus, how did Laois get to where they are?' you will say, well, they are after putting in place structures and excellent coaches -- it won't be down to tradition. And then, whether an inside or outside manager, they'll have the raw talent and enough of it. Even in the context of Dublin, Conal Keaney changing codes this year has made a huge difference to them. Little things like that."
Having met frequently in the Leinster senior championship, Laois and Dublin avoided each other for four years and were reunited in 2010. Dublin were sporting notions beyond beating Laois by then and while they won by nine points eventually they didn't have it all their own way. Laois faced Carlow next in the qualifiers. Having defeated them already in league and championship, they were sucker-punched. Carlow lost to Antrim and Laois looked on as Antrim took out Dublin to reach an All-Ireland quarter-final against Cork. Critchley knows the value of that kind of exposure.
In 2009, they welcomed Galway to the Leinster championship at Portlaoise and were repaid with a slaughtering: 5-29 to 0-17. A win over Antrim in the qualifiers helped restore morale and they stretched Limerick to the wire in Thurles. In the next round, Limerick defeated Dublin. As ever, Laois can make what they wish of those kinds of skewed results. But if they didn't keep looking at the glass half-full then it would be hard to maintain the hope and will to continue.
"It's down to hard work," states Critchley. "I know the first game for the Laois minors (losing to Westmeath recently) was disappointing. But that is the first team that has started under the Setanta programme and if they defeat Meath they will face the losers of Wexford and Dublin. The programme is only really kicking in now and it will take another five years to make it more solid. If we hit a Leinster minor semi-final this year it will be progress.
"With the underage programmes Dublin are ten years ahead. They've been at it since the early 1990s really. And they have a lot of big clubs that have their own coaching administrators. Laois is a small county but we are trying to use that as a positive."
He sees other signs that encourage him. "From 1987 Laois have always played Division 2 in the Tony Forristal and from 1987-2007 we only won it once. Since then we won it in 2008, '09 and lost the 2010 final in extra-time to Antrim. Some people say it's only Division 2 but from 1987-2007 we only won once. We were in Division 3 a number of those years."
Laois also began playing under 16A last year and have retained that status. This year's minor crop won the under 16B title but the teams that followed are hurling at the top grade.
The prototype Laois hurler is also being made extinct. "A lot of the players playing at the minute with Laois are highly skilled players," says Critchley, "maybe different to what Laois would have had traditionally -- more physical players. Even the present senior team, the skill, they have a very good first touch. (Their manager) Brendan (Fennelly) would have remarked on that. He seemed a little bit surprised at the level of skill. It's (about) getting the full mix. In recent years there is a physical dimension that Kilkenny brought to a different level. Tipp matched it. And even last Sunday Dublin had to come up to the mark; they have some very skilful players but also very physical as well. It is something we have to look at as a county."
Before his side played Laois ten years ago, the Dublin hurler David Sweeney recalled a poor league that ended with a 20-point whipping from Offaly. He expected that Laois would be a "very physical side, way bigger than us". Those roles, as Critchley attests, are now reversed. But Sweeney was optimistic for the future, noting the Dublin colleges' success and emergence of players like Keaney, a club colleague at Ballyboden.
"That (underage) work will only pay off in the future depending on how many players stay with the game," Sweeney stated in 2001. "It does affect the morale of the whole team when players drop out for whatever reason, and there is a lot of pressure in committing to the game these days."