Tuesday 20 March 2018

Laois plight strikes deep into heart of hurling

Martin Breheny

Martin Breheny

New GAA president Liam O'Neill has responsibility far beyond the Slieve Bloom mountains these days, but his heart must still be scalded over what's happening to hurling in his home county.

Laois has had many unpalatable dishes to choose from over the decades but two inside the last 12 months have carried a particularly foul taste. Last June, the seniors lost to Cork by 34 points and while the margin was down to 22 points against Dublin last Saturday, it was possibly even more depressing.

Last year, Laois remained competitive until half-time; last Saturday they were 3-14 to 1-1 behind at the interval after a shockingly inept resistance. Granted, Dublin are orbiting at high altitude nowadays, but question marks still remain against the attitude of the Laois players who allowed themselves to be swatted away so easily.

Still, they were present at least, unlike those who opted not to join the panel. It's all so different to the times when Laois were battling feistily to make a breakthrough. It's only seven years since they beat Dublin by 12 points in the Leinster championship. They also ran Offaly (who were going well at the time) to a point in the 1997 Leinster quarter-final and Kilkenny to three points a year later.


Laois failed to win a Leinster championship game in the 1990s but were nearly always highly competitive against Kilkenny, Wexford and Offaly, the big three of the time. There were no qualifiers back then, which was unfortunate as Laois were strong enough to make decent progress through the back door.

Now, they face a qualifier clash with Limerick on June 23, an assignment with a high potential for more Laois misery. It will be interesting to see what the commitment levels are over the coming weeks.

Damien Fox quit as manager in 2008 due to a poor response to training for the qualifiers after a big defeat by Offaly, so how will the Laois players react to the latest embarrassment?

Brendan Fennelly, who was in charge for one season, made an interesting observation after the Cork massacre last year, pointing out that some players joined the panel because they felt they had to, rather than because they wanted to.

"Players were saying that they didn't want to come in from the beginning, and the minute you took off a player or didn't pick a fella, they left the panel," he said.

One of the more stable periods of recent times was when Niall Rigney managed them from the 2008 (after Fox's resignation) to 2010 seasons. A highly respected figure, he made good progress but left after Laois lost to Carlow in the 2010 qualifiers.

It was a big loss for Laois but Rigney's talents didn't go unharnessed as he was appointed manager of James Stephens in Kilkenny, a club and a county not exactly short of big names. Yet, 'The Village' looked to Laois and were rewarded with a county title last year. Their gain was Laois' loss.

Rigney was on a committee set up to examine Laois hurling after the Cork defeat last year and which produced some disturbing findings. It pointed to big problems, including player and club apathy towards the county scene. Among other issues raised was whether some clubs should amalgamate.

It was also claimed that players were being told by some club officials not to be "wasting time with that crowd" (county panel), a bizarre scenario which gives some indication as to the extent of the problems in Laois.

Almost a year on, Laois are facing the fall-out from another embarrassment. Now under the stewardship of Teddy McCarthy, their fifth manager in seven years, it's bad news all the way as their highly probable ejection from the championship on June 23 will end a season which also saw them drop into Division 2A.

Inevitably, there will be calls for a change of manager, but that policy hasn't worked in the past because the problems extend far beyond the man on the sideline. They go deep into the heart of hurling in the county and, further still, into the GAA itself.

Because, while Laois' plight might look like a local issue, hurling nationally can't afford to lose what used to be a mid-ranking county to Christy Ring territory. Frankly, that looks like a natural hinterland for Laois right now.

Irish Independent

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