Sport Hurling

Monday 26 February 2018

Willie Hyland: 'I won't be there in October unless the scene is changed'

Laois' star hurler Willie Hyland is fed up the poor structure in the county, as he tells Damian Lawlor

TWO years ago, after they were beaten by Carlow in the qualifiers, Laois hurling captain Brian Campion stood up to address his players.

That defeat signalled the end of manager Niall Rigney's promising reign and, as his eyes welled up, Campion pleaded with the team not to be disheartened, adding that it was only a pothole that they had to pick themselves out of. They left Dr Cullen Park downhearted but still hopeful that brighter days lay ahead.

They couldn't have been more mistaken.

After Antrim beat them in the 2011 championship, they drew Cork in Portlaoise, shipped 10 goals and slumped to a 34-point defeat. New manager Brendan Fennelly didn't spare the players and they didn't save him either. Fennelly moved on shortly afterwards.

Teddy McCarthy came in this year and although they were relegated to Division 2, some pride was restored when they recorded a handsome defeat of Carlow in the Leinster championship. But that was a small air vent in a season that would suffocate them -- they were mercilessly whipped by 22 points by Dublin in the Leinster quarter-final and then hammered 6-22 to 1-11 by Limerick in the qualifiers last week.

Of that 1-11, Willie Hyland, their captain and talisman, scored 1-10. The Clough-Ballacolla man is one of the few chinks of light in another dark year for the county. He picked up the player of the month award for May and is the current highest scorer in the 2012 championship with 1-26 from three games. But he's had enough. Only 23, Hyland says he can't face another year like this.

"The players have been lambasted for years but no Laois hurler ever stood up and said what's going on. I'm not here to talk about myself -- this is about Laois hurling and the depression we feel, the whole scene is beating us down.

"If speaking out improves the set-up in any way, I'll do it. I held my thunder during the year but the truth is we need a complete restructure behind the scenes and for the senior team. We need a modern-day coach because we are just miles behind. I've been marking Stephen Hiney for almost seven years -- and we've had good battles -- but I couldn't believe the condition he was in a few weeks ago. It was like being hit by a bulldozer. Most of us train five or six nights a week but we're light years behind."

Does this mean he won't back Teddy McCarthy to stay on for another year?

"I have unreal time for Teddy as a person. This is not his fault, he's just the latest man in there, but I won't be there in October unless the whole scene is changed. I actually feel sorry for Teddy being in this job after what he's achieved in the game. He has achieved more than anyone in Laois but we're going out getting hidings with no real plan.

"Teddy made a stab at getting our best players out but much more must be done. He needs greater support from the board and clubs in that regard. We're lining out without guys of serious quality. They will only come on board if a figurehead like Jamesie O'Connor, a top-class coach with St Flannan's, or someone like Liam Sheedy, someone in touch with modern methods, arrived. Fellas are staying away and won't ever bother togging out if they see no potential.

"That Limerick defeat was the final straw but I haven't enjoyed hurling with Laois for the past two years. All those beatings we've shipped are bloody embarrassing. We've spiralled downwards since Niall Rigney stepped down and nothing's been done about it. Niall had every player in the county togged out and we were going somewhere -- we pushed Limerick to three points in the 2009 qualifiers. In hindsight, we didn't appreciate him half enough.

"Players like Cahir Healy, Zane Keenan, Eoin Browne, Joe Phelan, Shane Dollard and Shane Phelan are missing, as are other club hurlers good enough for Laois who won't bother because they see no hope."

Hyland sees little point, therefore, in blaming McCarthy for their situation.

"We have to look at some of the players, including those who won't tog. The sad thing about our dressing room after the Limerick match is that some lads were nearly relieved the whole thing was over. Lads knew there would be a fall-off after losing to Dublin and there was. Negativity seeped in and fellas wanted the whole thing to end. We lost three players in the run-up to the Limerick match.

"But there's a core group of lads who would bend over backwards for Laois hurling, guys who train six nights a week for the cause.

"The likes of Tommy Fitzgerald are hugely respected. He lives in Portlaoise where he is surrounded by football -- he was called up by at least two Laois football managers and he could be playing in Croke Park on the big day. But he's a hurling man and he's stuck with us. Mick McEvoy is another servant. Ninety-nine per cent of our lads are genuine but the arse is falling out of it now -- there are only so many hidings we can take. I'm sick of shaking hands with opponents after games, almost apologising for our displays."

Three weeks before they played Carlow in the championship, Hyland requested a hurling coach to improve their stick-work. He looked for Br Philip Ryan who had previously worked with them during Rigney's tenure. Br Ryan recently left the Waterford set-up and the Laois players wanted him.

"He's the best coach I worked under," Hyland remarks. "A genius. We wanted him in full-time but he only got to take two sessions -- I don't know why."

Hyland made that request at an army training camp in Kilworth where he got chatting to an organiser with a background in sports psychology.

"I wanted his opinion," Hyland adds. "So I asked, 'if you were 12 and started playing with a team and you took beating after beating all the way up, what impact would it have?' I asked what I should do. He said he would probably change his sport.

"All those beatings have a serious effect on me," Hyland continues. "I get fierce down after games and wonder is it all worth it? I remember as a ten-year-old crying at the 1998 Leinster championship match when Ken O'Shea from Kilkenny got a late goal to beat us. Growing up, my heroes were David Cuddy and Niall Rigney, I didn't have to look to any other county. But who do Laois youngsters have to look up to now? No one. They look across the border to Henry Shefflin or Tommy Walsh. We're fast on our way to the Christy Ring Cup and if that happens we'll struggle to field a team at all."

So what exactly needs to change? "As I said, the board need to show vision and leadership and appoint a high-profile, modern manager similar to Anthony Daly or Davy Fitzgerald who will make it attractive to play for the county. Realistically, would Conal Keaney, Ryan O'Dwyer or Dotsy O'Callaghan be hurling for Dublin only for Daly? I don't think so.

"We need the real genuine Laois hurling people to grab the bull by the horns and make sure that happens. I have little faith in the people who are there at present picking the next Laois manager and this is where the change has to start."

Attracting such quality managers to counties like Clare and Dublin is one thing, but they'll hardly be queuing down the N7 to take Laois.

"No, but you must start from somewhere," Hyland insists.

"We are in crisis but we must still look for the best. I was at loggerheads with the county board this year, looking for proper O'Neills sliotars to train with. We were given balls you wouldn't give to your dog at home. We did manage to get the O'Neills balls for a few weeks but eventually the others came back. Basic issues. We also had problems with training facilities and gear.

"The county board lads do their best, they work hard and it's easy to blame them but I have had my difficulties with them.

"I always remember my first year senior in 2007 when we were beaten by Wicklow. That was an all-time low for us. You could hear a pin drop on the bus home except for one board member who I heard laughing during the journey home. I just asked myself if that fella really had a passion for Laois hurling.

"Until more die-hard hurling men get involved in overseeing the set-up we're at nothing. If club men want to do something about it, they'd better act quickly because we're on our knees. I can easily walk off now and give no reasons for doing so, but I'm speaking so that changes can be made and that we can start afresh in October. There is a serious amount of work to be done."

The Laois board will point out that the minors performed well this season, the under 21s are in the provincial final and they'll glance back to the 'Hurling for Laois' plan that current president Liam O'Neill formulated as signs of progress.

As far back as 2006, Development Squads were set-up and current senior and under 21 players Neil Foyle and Stephen Maher are graduates of that system.

Meanwhile, Pat Critchley has been working hard with the Setanta programme which develops 12--14-year-olds. There is a similar programme for 15- and 16-year-olds named the Cuchulainn project.

Last winter, they introduced Paudie Butler as a master hurling coach and before that, in July, they held a forum to discuss how to progress hurling in the county.

"I went into that forum and listened to lads for five minutes before I went away," Hyland continues. "I felt they were talking about referees, nothing to do with the issues that matter at all. I'm not big into these three-to-five-year plans anyway, they look lovely on paper and give the impression that things are structured but sure look at us. In fairness to Pat Critchley, he's a Laois legend and doing unreal work at that level.

Everyone respects him but at senior level we need a couple of key appointments. Someone to get us conditioned right, get the best backroom team possible, put our top players back out on the field. Someone to unite everyone -- players, selectors, backroom and board members. We need to respect the jersey again, because there's little respect for it now.

"We could at least get back competitive again. Can we put something in place whereby we give ourselves the best possible chance? The players have proven that they are willing to help raise funds -- we held two Fight Nights in the past two years -- we can do that again. How can we stop the hammerings? We need help. We should be aiming to match the Offalys, Dublins and Wexfords of this world.

"It's time for everyone to stop posturing. We're at an all-time low."

Hyland emphatically ruled out seeking a transfer to another county, stating that while he is totally disillusioned with Laois he would never countenance leaving Clough-Ballacolla where he has been involved with the under 12s, 16s and 21s over the past three years. "My club is everything to me.''

His club contribution, however, will be of little comfort to county hurling supporters if their best player doesn't feature again.

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