How do you measure heartache? Years spent in the doldrums, woeful win-loss ratios, and player unrest or disinterest are all useful, dependable, barometers.
But the pain of devotees of Laois hurling is buried deeper than such surface figures. It’s a haunting collective memory.
Laois have lost big, in league and championship, time and again, across too many decades. Worse by far were those times when they threatened insurrection, only to be denied at the last minute by one or other member of the game’s establishment.
From 1981, when Offaly’s Padraig Horan scored a ‘ghost goal’ in a one-point Leinster semi-final loss, to 2014, when goalkeeper Eoin Lowry mishit a 20-metre free attempt on goal that would have given them a sensational victory over Galway, Laois have been mocked by the sporting gods.
If that almost-great ’80s team, of Critchley and Taylor, et al, stands out most vividly from the page, then the all-but-forgotten vintage from the 1990s may have actually suffered the most.
Hard to credit it now, but this was a generation of players that failed to win a single championship match through an entire decade and one that came so close to immortality.
The roll call of ill-fortune that plagued their efforts has lost none of its cruelty, even at this remove. It started with Wexford, who beat them in provincial openers five years in a row.
All but one of those games threatened to go either way, but none fell in Laois’s favour.
The ’93 meeting was the hardest to take. They were trailing by three points, with time almost up, when Tony Dunne motored in on Damien Fitzhenry’s goal, only to find the side-netting. Game over.
Two years later and history repeated itself, when Kilkenny lucked their way to a two-point win in Carlow, after stand-in keeper, Joe Dermody, denied Fintan Lalor a winning goal in the closing stages.
But these things happen in threes, right? Come ’97, it was a late PJ Peacock shot that grazed the wrong side of the Offaly post in Croke Park. Laois lost that one by the bare minimum. Then, there was ’98.
A goal to the good on Kilkenny, at HQ, with the game almost up, and they somehow lost by the same margin. In the end, hurling’s revolution years passed them by.
“There were so many days like that,” says Niall Rigney who soldiered throughout the decade. “In ’98, we were three up on Kilkenny, with three minutes to go, and they went and scored 1-3 without reply to win. We played brilliantly that day; we had some wonderful players and a really good team.
"We had the team to do it that year. Mark Rooney hit a post late-on.”
Then, as now, Laois had good players, just never quite enough of them, and there was no back door, either. If ’98 stands out as the loss that hurts the most, then it was the narrow defeat to Kilkenny, three years earlier, that spoke volumes for the restraints the county’s hurlers were under, and, paradoxically, the enormous potential they possessed.
No-one expected anything other than torment for them that day in Dr Cullen Park.
The mid-1990s were a difficult time for Kilkenny, by their own high standards, but they approached that provincial opener having dismantled in the league final a Clare side that would finish the summer as Munster and All-Ireland champions, and with the tag of championship favourites on their backs.
Pat Critchley, a wonderful player and a dedicated coach, was manager of Laois at the time, but turnout for games and training was awful, not least because it was the Cats lying in wait.
Rigney reckons now that they were operating off a panel of no more than 20 players and that was before David Cuddy, their free-taker and most important forward, went down with appendicitis the night before the provincial quarter-final.
Word was already about the county that Babs Keating had been lined up to take the team on in ’96, but Critchley, Laois’s only All Star, prepared as diligently as he could, with five games against Carlow over five successive Wednesday nights, before the championship opener, and it worked.
“Fintan Lalor scored 1-4 and Bill Maher was just magnificent,” says Rigney. “I remember, after it, one guy from the supporters’ club came up to me, put a hand on my shoulder, and said, ‘imagine what ye can do next year, with Babs over ye’. It was a terrible thing to do to Pat, although it was nothing to do with Babs.”
Amid all this defeat and despair, there was one day that did go their way.
Laois would yo-yo up and down the changing league structures, but they did manage to beat Kilkenny three times across the decade. Cork and Wexford were also taken down, in one particularly encouraging campaign in 1999, but the undoubted highlight was the league quarter-final defeat of Kilkenny in ’96.
It was no ambush. Nicky Brennan was Kilkenny manager. An employee with Avonmore Creameries at the time, his office overlooked acres of lush Laois fields and he spoke the week of the game about how plenty of his players had experienced their share of tough days at underage against their neighbours.
DJ Carey was on that team. So, too, Charlie Carter, John Power, Pat O’Neill, Eddie and Willie O’Connor. No mugs. Laois would end with two points to spare in Thurles and Rigney captured the moment perfectly, afterwards, when he said that Laois had known second-best plenty of times, but that it was Kilkenny’s turn now.
“What can I say, I created a monster,” he laughs now, when reminded of his words then.
Keating seemed almost perplexed by the win, claiming Laois had very little hurling done in training. He even admitted to a sense of relief when his native Tipperary had two points to spare on them in the subsequent semi-final.
The feeling was that Laois were only starting and that the final would have been too much too soon, but they fell heavily to Offaly later that year in Leinster.
Sustaining any manner of pace or momentum has never been the county’s thing.
“There was that bit of hype under Babs,” says Ricky Cashin, who kept goal for much of that era. “A bit like now, with Eddie Brennan. The hurling was the talk of the county after that Kilkenny game and we only lost by a couple of points to Tipp in the end. We didn’t win any silverware at the time, but we were very competitive.
“With a bit of luck, we would have gotten over the line at some stage. If we did, the confidence levels would have been through the roof. That’s probably the last time that Laois was regularly competitive with the top hurling teams and they were always there and thereabouts in the ’80s, as well. You do think about that stuff, now and again.”
Not least last Sunday. Cashin admits that his mind slipped back to all those close calls, when Laois accounted for Dublin in O’Moore Park last week. Rigney looked at the outpouring of kids onto the field and couldn’t help but be taken back to his own childhood, when the team that reached the 1984 Centenary Cup final, and a provincial decider a year later, had so captured his own imagination.
Sustaining this latest and sudden upsurge — building on the breakthrough so that GAA anoraks of the future don’t have to scour through the record books again for the last time a Laois team bettered one of their so-called superiors in league or championship — is another thing. And there are obstacles to that, in the short- and the long-terms.
Cashin’s concerns lies in the schools, where Offaly fell away so badly and with such devastating consequences. His own son attended school in Mountmellick and not once did Cashin ever see a pupil walk in or out with a hurl. The stories he hears from Portlaoise and Portarlington are just as bleak. That’s the county’s three largest population centres, right there.
Rigney’s thoughts were more immediate.
“Let’s call it straight up. It’s a third game in 15 days this week and that’s a huge ask, but it’s some opportunity to be playing your second game in Croke Park in just three Sundays. We’re in unheralded territory here. The players are loving it; Eddie has everyone enjoying it.
“He let them out to enjoy the McDonagh Cup win on the Sunday and the Monday and they had some dinner and a few beers again last Sunday. That’s great to see. You hear about all these training camps and drink bans, but these are amateur players and it is important that they enjoy themselves.”
And not just the players.
For Laois, in general, this has long been overdue.