Laois bid farewell to wilderness years
Laois hurling has made a concerted bid to regain lost ground, writes Dermot Crowe
THERE are certain things about the Laois hurling manager Cheddar Plunkett that you might not know. Like his mother being from Kilkenny. His father being from Cork. Or his first management venture having been when he played Louis Walsh to a midlands rock ensemble called the Mere Mortals over 20 years ago, a group that included Pat Critchley, Cheddar's own brother Ollie and a sibling of Niall Rigney named Des, among others.
His name might not ring many bells even if he has done club and county some service. Seamus Plunkett hurled primarily through the 1980s, his county career beginning with a league match and a goalscoring contribution against Kilkenny in Nowlan Park in November 1980. He won a tidy bunch of county medals with Portlaoise when they duelled for supremacy with fierce rivals Camross. But his name didn't jump off the page and there are many Laois players more identifiable.
He has attracted, rather than courted, public attention now as manager of a team making moderate strides and appearing in a match of rare prominence. Having been jointly authorised along with Paul Cuddy to find a manager last autumn, he wound up being that manager. Working off a low base, he has overseen a minor resurrection of the county's fortunes, though there is an asterisk attached; they had a good break with the championship draw and were always favourites to climb out of their league division.
It is not inconceivable that a team which has played third-tier hurling and endured two seasons of hell and ignominy might unravel in the presence of a county with the grand designs of the current Galway representatives. But to be talked about at all in positive language is a joyous leap for Laois. Two years ago this month they suffered that horrendous qualifier loss to Cork at Portlaoise, conceding a mind-blowing 10-20, the absolute pits of their shame. Last year they fell out of Division 1B. The Christy Ring was offered as a refuge from any more punishment and humiliation.
While the good work that Niall Rigney had completed was being impressively undone in the following two seasons, Plunkett was managing the minors. The next generation could not look to their superiors for inspiration. The minors are now managed by Pat Critchley, a quietly heroic force sowing the seeds of rejuvenation in underage hurling. Now his minors can see the seniors making a little noise. They have earned their day out against Galway.
"We are absolutely excited by it," says Plunkett. "We are really looking forward to the day. We are being very realistic in that we are stepping up from being a Division 3 team against a team that are Leinster champions and All-Ireland finalists, and could and maybe should have won the All-Ireland. We know what we are playing here but we also know our own world and what we are bringing to the table."
For too long Laois neglected their juveniles – Critchley's estimation in 2011 was that they were a decade behind Dublin. They soldiered without some of their best players at senior level. Now they are all on board. Rigney took over as an interim manager in 2008 from Damien Fox, an Offaly man who surrendered a hopeless cause. "At one training session there were about four players at it. And that was the day Damian had enough . . . up to that we were getting nine, ten or 11. Stuff that wasn't happening at their clubs," recalls Rigney.
"Offaly beat us that year (2008). They (the players) just didn't come back after the Offaly game, they didn't want to know about the qualifiers. The ambition level wouldn't have been the strongest. Players are probably asking themselves what is the point."
Rigney took charge for the next two seasons. "It took six to seven months for them to come around to our way of thinking. During those first six or seven months I sometimes asked what was I doing there – lads not available for training, fellas not showing, not making any effort to make the call. One player had played in all seven league games and started in every game and two weeks before we played Galway in the championship, he sends a text to say he had lost interest."
Galway faced Laois in Portlaoise in their first Leinster championship match four years ago and won by 27 points. Despite that, Laois recovered to defeat Antrim and Carlow in the qualifiers before going down narrowly to Limerick in Thurles. That performance gave the wider public a glimpse of what Laois might be capable of.
"I remember that day, after the Limerick game," says Rigney, "Cork were hurling Galway and we were taking our seats in the stand and the crowd applauded the Laois players. They are all there now. So there is no excuse. Every player of inter-county calibre is there and all are making a great effort. People say fair play to Cheddar but I would say fair play to the players too, they deserve their credit too. They are fit, they have put in a great effort since January, they would have been behind Antrim and Carlow at the start of the year. They have done great work."
Plunkett has no complaints about their application. "Their commitment, approach, character and attitude – that is what I am looking for – and we have been very, very pleased," he states. "This is just standard for an inter-county team, it should never be any other way, but I am satisfied."
It is not like Laois has not known hardship before, but the trials of the last two years were, to many seasoned followers, their most soul-destroying. Willie Hyland's public plea in this newspaper followed the disastrous year suffered in 2012. James Young, one of their most talented hurlers, also went on the record to convey his disillusionment with how hurling was governed in the county. Tommy Fitzgerald had a cut and sounded exasperated. He and others have opted out of the squad at various points.
The county board took some hits along the way and fiery meetings were held to try to find some common path towards rehabilitation. Now there appears to be a communion of ideas and purpose, a lasting coherence long absent. "The long-term goal was to make Laois a competitive force in hurling again," says Plunkett. "I say this to the players a lot of time: there are going to be a lot of bumps along the road before we reach there. We have a lot of ground to make up here. They have certainly worked very, very hard. Can't fault them on that. I would say there are no players in Ireland more hungry to play for their county."
This year's Laois minors beat Offaly and their under 21s were unlucky not to do the same. At those levels the county has shown marked improvement after a concerted campaign to increase the standard of coaching right down to ten years of age. Laois lost to Carlow in the 2002 and 2006 minor championships. In 2010, they lost to Westmeath at minor and also in 2011. But recent years have seen them generally become more competitive. In 2009, they defeated Dublin at minor and last year at under 21.
Gerry Kavanagh took over as county chairman in December and the change brought fresh impetus to the search for a replacement for Teddy McCarthy. "The process had dragged and dragged and dragged. I asked them then to report back to me. They had literally drawn a blank. I asked Seamus if he would consider it but he said he was committed to the minors. So I suggested Pat Critchley would take on the minors, because he had been working with them already, and a few rapid calls were made and between one thing and another . . ."
He is delighted with how things have worked out. "There was an awful level of suspicion that developed between the players and the county board. The county board were not to blame for it all but when it comes to the blame game where do you draw the line? That had to be overcome and Seamus is a very articulate person in how he went about that."
Kavanagh is straight-talking: "We were on a race to the bottom and that is a fact. We were winning that race hands down." He feels that previous attempts to broker peace and agreements between respective parties – players, managements and board officers – were well-meaning but too restrained. "What was needed was a blood-on-the-wall meeting really. 'Cos there were people who had issues and felt they were stymied in not being able to address them. And I'd feel sometimes it is helpful to strip away all that and let their feelings be known.
"The problem was that it was not attractive and players were not buying into it. It was not that they refused, but they were not motivated. The last management changed all that and the mindset and what it meant to hurl for your county. I have the height of admiration for the chaps. Having said that, we are not in a fool's paradise either."
Plunkett and his backroom team weren't able to start work until January and there will be no more unbackable favourite in this year's championship than Galway today. Yet there is hope and there hasn't been much of that of late. "The one thing we would be hoping for is that they must be ultra-competitive," says Niall Rigney. "You give them the respect they deserve but by no means fear them. Like Offaly last Sunday, they have got to keep the goal count down, try to put doubts in their heads. We must be extremely tight at the back and our forwards have to be very, very creative. They must be very committed and stay working non-stop. If we could get that it would be a step further. Let's be realistic: no one is giving Laois a chance."
Rigney bore witness to Laois' mauling from Cork two years ago. "I remember looking at the scoreboard with a few minutes to go, it was incredible. I remember looking out and the players weren't fit and the players didn't look interested."
He can't forecast how the scoreboard will look this evening. But he expects to see a fit Laois team. And he knows he'll see an interested one. It's a start.