JOHN DIVILLY: John Sugrue building confidence and trust in Laois

The two championship spankings Laois handed to Westmeath prior to last Saturday came in 1979 and 1991.

The winning margin in 1979 was 14 points and it was 11 in 1991. Saturday’s victory of 10 points was just as impressive.

Maybe, it was because I was a neutral that I really enjoyed the game. I stood on the sparsely populated terrace in Tullamore. I travelled in the hope that this local derby would serve up some genuine championship football. While the intensity levels only occasionally moved the needle, both teams played good, honest football. The difference was that Laois had more quality players on the pitch and in reserve; the likes of Brody, Dillon, Begley, Lillis, O’Loughlin, and the Kingstons.

The Kingston brothers were exceptional. The former UCD Sigerson players would be known as classy and sometimes flashy forwards. In the past, if things were going against them, they might have thrown in the towel. They’ve changed. They’ve matured and are now real leaders.

They showed on Saturday that when their first-half game-plan wasn’t bearing fruit, they could adapt. Initially, Donie was plonked in his now customary full-forward berth. Balls were pegged in at him from every angle and distance. He’s very similar to Michael Murphy in stature and not many full-backs can handle his size and strength, but Westmeath’s Sam Duncan can be extremely proud of his first-half efforts. It was a traditional manly tussle of No. 3 v No. 14 and Donie’s return from his first four possessions were a shot dropped short, wide and two attempted shots on goal saved. These misses were as a direct result of great pressure from Duncan.

Previously, Donie might have gotten very frustrated, but he didn’t last weekend. Just before the interval, he moved out to the middle third and made a power-play. He collected a John O’Loughlin pass and slalomed past Westmeath men. A switched ball, across to the advancing wing back Trevor Collins and he drilled a glorious point.

He swapped positions with his brother Paul in the second half and it was game over. Donie won several great kick-outs in the second half and, became the playmaker instead of the goal scorer. His brother Paul duly took over this responsibility.

We’ve seen some memorable scoring feats over the years. Rory Gallagher hit 3-9 in a championship game against Monaghan in 2002, Mattie Forde scored 2-10 against Offaly in 2004 and Declan Darcy hit 2-13 against London in the 1997 championship.

Now Paul Kingston’s 3-2, all from play, will be fondly remembered. He only took five shots and he registered 2-1 with his right and 1-1 with his left. Each of his scores were sublime and exceptionally well executed. How come Paul could get the space, but Donie couldn’t?

There are two reasons. Paul, through experience, has learned to make different and more evasive runs than Donie, because he can’t rely on his size alone. Secondly, Westmeath weren’t ready for a Laois ‘Plan B’ up front and, when Donie pushed out to the 40, Westmeath let their guard down.

Colm Begley, immense throughout, set up two of these goals for Paul. The first showed Paul making a smart run into space and Begley not being afraid to kick the ball into space for him. A beautiful swivel and an unstoppable shot to the roof of the net was the result. Paul also set up two goal chances in the second half for Trevor Collins and Benny Carroll. Both missed.

While these misses didn’t matter in the end, it will matter against a defensive Carlow in the Leinster semi-final. This lack of ruthlessness or game-management is something the Laois management will be working hard on over the next fortnight. They could have buried Westmeath on numerous occasions, as this passage of back and forth illustrates: Laois won the second half throw-in and held the ball exceptionally well for a minute. A simple point chance was there for Donie, but he fisted wide.

Westmeath went down the field and kicked a free. Instead of Laois being 0-11 to 0-6 up, it was now 0-10 to 0-7. Directly after Paul’s first goal, Carroll missed an easy chance and, soon after, Westmeath scored. Immediately after Paul’s second goal, Laois hold possession inside the scoring zone, but a poorly-executed hand-pass allowed Luke Loughlin to intercept and Westmeath score on the counter. It should have been 2-12 to 0-8, but was 2-11 to 0-9.

Carroll spurned his goal- chance — to make it 3-11 to 0-10 — and Westmeath counter and toe-poke a goal. Now it’s 2-11 to 1-10.

Westmeath are still in this game with 15 minutes to play, but realistically, they should have been long dead. Laois will need to be clinical in front of goal against Carlow.

Three of Laois’s replacement were clinical. Evan O’Carroll, Gary Walsh and first-half sub Niall Donoher hit 1-4 between them. Laois have two types of attackers available to them at present: Strong, physical, and accurate forwards, such as O’Carroll, Walsh and the Kingstons, and small, pacy, and accurate attackers, like Munnelly, Farrell, O’Connor, Carroll, Conway, Donoher, and Strong.

This will be key to unlocking the clustered Carlow rearguard. John Surgue has more options and flexibility up front than his Carlow counterpart Turlough O’Brien. Carlow can hurt anyone on the counter, but rely on Paul Broderick for scores.

Have Laois any good man-marker that can curtail Broderick? They have: Gareth Dillon. As a coach of modern-day defenders, I will definitely be showing video clips of Dillon’s defensive qualities from Saturday. He showed that you can still defend without fouling and without help from the ‘blanket’. He snuffed out John Connellan with some neat, near-hand tackles and pick-pocketed him as he was about to dummy-solo around him.

He then moved over to Luke Loughlin and had a fantastic one-on-one duel with him. Loughlin was by far Westmeath’s greatest threat and he constantly showed for the ball and ran hard at Laois at every opportunity. The problem for Luke was that he met a gritty footballing corner-back who relished this task. Dillon’s performance was every bit as good as Mayo’s Chris Barrett’s in last year All-Ireland final. His display reminded me of Marc Ó Sé.

Laois are not unduly defensive in their set-up, but they do possess an extra man at the back. His name is Graham Brody. What makes the Portlaoise netminder different to all other current intercounty goalkeepers? He is natural footballer, as well as a shot-stopper. He ventured past his own 45m line on seven occasions in the first half and had an assist in three points. He only did it four times in the second half, but crucially Paul Kingston’s second goal came from one of these set-plays.

They’re set-plays, because I’ve no doubt they are well practised in trainings. When Brody went galloping, the full-back Mark Timmons played in goal. There was no discouragement from the dugout; it was refreshing to see a coach fully trust and embrace his players to use their natural talents. The players are enjoying John Sugrue’s trust.

I am not sure about the Westmeath team that Colin Kelly sent out to play. To me, Kieran Martin has to play in a central position, preferably at No. 6 and not on the flanks. Callum McCormack is a corner-forward and not a play-making centre-forward. Ronan O’Toole is a play-making centre-forward and not a full-forward.

I know John Heslin and he is undoubtedly an impact player, but not as a substitute. He makes his impact as a starter. He influences the team and, when he didn’t start last Saturday, Westmeath looked deflated and devoid of any real threat. He didn’t look like an injured player when he came on. All winning teams at the weekend, apart from Longford, scored at least 20 points. Westmeath had some chance of that if Heslin started.

Laois have no such concerns as they prepare for a provincial semi with Carlow and the prospect of Kieran Lillis trying to stop the marauding Sean Murphy, Gareth Dillon trying to put the shackles on Paul Broderick, and Graham Brody possibly trying to become the first goalkeeper to solo the length of Croke Park and score from open play.

Don’t bet against it.


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