AS a Laois man employed in Kildare for the past four years, Willie Brennan should have driven to work last Monday week licking his lips at the prospect of delivering an unmerciful slagging to his many co-workers of a Lilywhite persuasion.
Wicklow had just recorded the summer’s first bona fide shock against Kildare the day before and, under normal circumstances, Brennan would have few qualms about picking off his buddies like ducks in a barrel.
“They were talking about Wicklow when I got in but I didn’t open my mouth,” says the Graiguecullen man.
“Kildare didn’t play at all, as far as I am concerned but, anyway, one of them asked me ‘did Laois ever lose to Wicklow’?”
Did they what? It is 22 years ago now but Brennan says he still has nightmares whenever his mind drifts back to that melting June day in the foothills of the Wicklow mountain when he was part of a Laois team that fell foul of a game known as the ‘Battle of Aughrim’.
Laois had travelled with blueprints for a triumphant summer long drawn up. Six weeks earlier they had won the National League at Croke Park.
Kerry had been dismissed in a challenge match a week later.
Four of their players had won All-Ireland medals with Portlaoise three years before and half a dozen were on the Leinster panel that won the Railway Cup in 1986. They were on fire. Laois’ last defeat had been all of 11 months previously in the Leinster final against Dublin.
The main concern they had before the game was the choice of Aughrim as a venue. Though a spectacular setting the visitors tried unsuccessfully to have the tie switched beforehand.
With concerns over access to the village and car parking, thousands of Laois supporters decided against travelling. Twelve thousand people still turned up and, with no wire surrounding the pitch, the throng hugged the sidelines creating a gladitorial-like atmosphere.
The walk from the dressing room to the pitch was punctuated with some choice words from the home support and Laois claimed afterwards that it all served to spook the Offaly referee Carthage Buckley.
Wicklow were unfancied but they were no mugs. They had won the O’Byrne Cup that year and two of the four previous meetings between the sides but Laois were hunting bigger game. Dublin were on the wane and Meath had still to make the big breakthrough under Sean Boylan.
The feeling was that a first provincial title in 40 years was a fingertip away. Aughrim was merely an irritant that had to be endured.
“We want the Leinster title,” captain Colm Browne told a local paper the week beforehand. “We take our first step this Sunday.”
How could he know it would be their last? They were four points in arrears when the game ended and, infamously, not one of their starting forwards were still on the field. Three of them were sent off — one was carried off. The two other were substituted.
Only one Wicklow man was sent to the line but Laois claimed the bald facts told a distorted story and railed at what they perceived to be the intimidating tactics on the part of their hosts.
“Daylight Robbery,” screamed the headline on the Leinster Express the following week. The sub-heading was just as forthright. “Provoked, barracked and finally beaten in the simmering cauldron of Aughrim,” it went.
Laois started at a flying pace and led by six points at the break but the damage had already been done. Brennan, whose son Barry is on the Laois panel tonight for the game in Dr Cullen Park, was dismissed along with Wicklow’s Nick O’Neill after just 10 minutes.
His Graiguecullen clubmate Christy Maguire followed 60 seconds after the throw-in and the searing hot weather eventually took its toll. Eamonn ‘Atch’ Whelan stretched the lead to seven after the break but that was destined to be the county’s last score in the 1986 championship.
From there on it was all Wicklow. A penalty from a 19-year-old Kevin O’Brien was the game’s turning point with 13 minutes to go but the football continued to be overshadowed by events of an ugly nature.
Laois forward Gerry Browne staggered off with a busted nose midway through the second half and the seal was fitted to an awful day when Tom ‘Curley’ Prendergast made it a hat-trick of dismissals two minutes from the end.
Laois were beaten and a great team that had promised so much drifted apart without ever fulfilling their potential.
“Lads like Tom Prendergast, Eamon Whelan and myself were well into our thirties,” says Brennan. “We should have got a lot more out of that team. We had superb players like Liam Irwin, big John Costello and Pat Brophy.
“They were all great footballers. It was a shame we never won the Leinster. It was devastating.’’
Both sides have regrets. Wicklow went on play Meath in Newbridge in the semi-final but were beaten by 16 points. Aside from a one-point defeat of Kildare four years later, they had nothing else to shout about until the win a fortnight ago.
“Had there been a Mick O’Dwyer around at that time we would have enjoyed a golden era,” says O’Brien who will be at the Kerryman’s side in Carlow tonight. “We can always blame county boards and managers or players but we are all guilty. We weren’t professional enough.’’
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