Pat Critchley has heard Laois’ landmark win over Dublin described as the county’s most significant in the Championship since 1985 and can’t disagree.
“There were some good wins in the 1990s and a couple more over the years but it was right up there alright . . . it was the biggest win in decades, you would have to say,” said Critchley.
That win in 1985, for the record, was a Leinster semi-final defeat of Wexford and a result that helped midfielder Critchley to become the county’s first All-Star.
Well over 30 years on, he’s still the only Laois hurler ever to win such an accolade though reckons that may be about to change.
Asked what current Laois players have played themselves into All-Star territory after a remarkable summer, Critchley name-checked captain Paddy Purcell for starters. His strongest shout though was for goalkeeper Enda Rowland. “Definitely he would be deserving of a nomination,” said Critchley of the Abbeyleix custodian.
“Enda Rowland for the last number of years has been a huge servant. I remember when Clare were going really well a few years back we got a bit of a hiding off them one year in Ennis. I think they may have scored four goals and Enda was still my man of the match. He’s a fella that never gives up and every year has been consistently excellent.”
Critchley speaks from a position of authority as he managed the Laois minors in 2013 when they reached the Leinster final. Rowland was the goalkeeper on that team while John Lennon and Mark Kavanagh, both of whom also featured on Sunday, played in that decider too.
“I knew this Laois team had the skill set, that wasn’t the issue for me, it was whether they could kick on and move up to that next level of intensity and physicality,” said Critchley, a former Games Development Manager with Laois GAA.
So the skills weren’t really in question with me and traditionally we wouldn’t have feared Dublin either. I think the whole buzz of winning the Joe McDonagh Cup and the confidence from that just allowed them to kick on and reach that next level and embrace it.
“It’s a massive boost, a tonic for everyone in the county who is involved in hurling. The clubs, the underage scene, it’s massive. Sure you could hardly see a blade of grass at half-time with all the kids on the field. Even afterwards it must have been an hour before all the supporters cleared the pitch.
"It was one of those special days, I’d probably compare it to the footballers winning the Leinster title in 2003. It was up there with that as an occasion.”
It’s a neat 40 years since Laois last contested an All-Ireland quarter-final. They played a Galway side on that occasion in 1979 that was captained by Joe McDonagh. When Laois return to that stage this weekend they will do so, fittingly, as Joe McDonagh Cup champions.
Critchley gives Eddie Brennan huge praise for making it all happen, just months into his reign in the midlands. Brian Cody would certainly approve too.
“He’s done a great job and results aside, they’re playing a great brand of hurling with a real intensity and work rate, the tackling has come on and their use of the ball is much improved,” he said.
“They’re playing a lovely brand and you can only say that Eddie Brennan has done a fantastic job and put a great spirit in the team.
"It seems to be a happy camp, full of confidence. The man has eight All-Ireland medals and they’re obviously buying into him and feeding off him.”
After beating a Dublin side that knocked Galway out of the Championship, Laois should have half a chance against Tipperary. But it remains a giant challenge.
“It’s going to be another physical contest and if you go back a week or two, Tipperary were a lot of people’s favourites for the All-Ireland before the Munster final,” said Critchley.
That puts it into context but I’ve been very impressed by Laois so far and I don’t think they’ll be overawed by the challenge.
"A lot of them wouldn’t have played at Croke Park before the McDonagh final but it didn’t seem to bother them one bit.
"Isn’t it fantastic to be going up to Croke Park in July to play Tipperary? In the last six in the Championship. I wouldn’t doubt them for a minute.”