There are certain days when champions are ripe to fall. For so long, Laois, below-par and lethargic, looked safe, if not secure.
Tom Kelly, their inspirational centre-back, had surged forward to release them from the Carlow cosh. It was one of his trademark forays, that from last summer, we expect to end with a score to lift the masses. However, this time, as he finally shook the last desperate Carlow tackle, his shot was wild and wayward. And wide.
The sizeable Carlow portion of the 16,000 crammed into their county grounds, began to believe it was their day as they trailed the Leinster champions by only one point and playing the better football.
Although Laois hadn’t played well, the sense of shock in the air took a long time to manifest itself.
Carlow’s shooting was poor in the first half, Laois had a Chris Conway goal controversially ruled out for square ball, and the underdogs could only manage two scores in the opening spell.
Something changed in the collective mind-set after the break, though, both in the Carlow followers and players. Kevin Fitzpatrick and Noel Garvan had dominated the central sector for the first 35 minutes, but now they could barely get a touch. Every attempt at fielding appeared to be disrupted by two or three Carlow men. Johnny Nevin, who covered every single blade, and Thomas Walsh were dictating the tempo of the game, and there was a real possibility that those present were about to witness one of the most historic victories in Carlow football.
However, as it so often does in championship, quality prevailed. The most positive aspect of this disappointing Laois performance was their ability to find the higher gear in the final ten minutes. For all their energy and toil, the home side had nobody to nail the telling score, as Darren Rooney did for Laois in the 64th minute.
The wing-back, double-jobbing as footballer and hurler over the weekend, powered into a static attack and struck a fantastic point.
You could almost see the heart being ripped from the Carlow challenge. It only left Laois two points ahead on the scoreboard, but the psychological boost was clear.
But this was not a good Laois display. When Nevin and Walsh threw the chips down, it was experience and raw talent that guided Laois through.
For long periods of this game, they were unrecognisable from the swirling force of nature that entranced us all last summer.
It took wise heads to negotiate a safe passage. Mick Lalor was calm and patient when it was required, slowing things down in the final five minutes, while Joe Higgins and Kelly plugged the leaks. There are plenty of things for Micko to munch on before he renews acquaintance with Sean Boylan, most notably how keenly his team felt the absence of Beano McDonald. The lively forward left the field just before the break, a victim of an accidental clash of heads. The game was poorer for his absence. In a pedestrian first half, Beano, along with Ross Munnelly, showed some moments of real class. His 34th minute point illuminated the match just as people were growing disinterested. Unfortunately, a minute later he was gone.
It was Laois’ seventh and final point of the first half and it came at a time when Carlow simply could not score.
After Brian Kelly pierced Fergal Byron’s net in the 14th minute, following some trojan work by Sean Kavanagh to set him up, Carlow would fail to score for the rest of the half. It is quite conceivable that Carlow could have been ahead at the break, had their forwards brought their shooting boots, instead of trailing 0-7 to 1-1. Carlow got the opening score and actually led until the 18th minute. The notorious Laois slow start, which plagued their season last year, was in full effect. In those 18 minutes, Carlow only managed two scores, while Laois, through McDonald and Munnelly, chipped away at their lead.
McDonald equalised with a free in the 18th minute and Laois took control. Even after the break, it looked like being Laois’ day with Fitzpatrick and Lalor set up for scores by the two raiding corner-backs, Higgins and Aidan Fennelly.
Then came the Carlow charge. Mark Carpenter and Walsh started to link well, their forwards gained more composure and when Carpenter, playing a captain’s role, punched the ball over the bar in the 61st minute, Laois nerves started to fray as the scoreboard read 0-11 to 1-7.
But that called for cool heads. And Laois found them when they were most needed.
: Laois: R Munnelly(0-4, 3 frees), B McDonald(0-3, 2 frees), M Lalor(0-3), C Conway(0-2, 1 free), C Parkinson, D Rooney, K Fitzpatrick(0-1 each) Carlow B Kelly(1-3, 2 frees), S Rea(0-2, both frees), S Kavanagh, M Carpenter(0-1 each)
: F Byron; A Fennelly, C Byrne, J Higgins, D Rooney, T Kelly, P McDonald; K Fitzpatrick, N Garvan; R Munnelly, I Fitzgerlad, C Parkinson, B McDonald, M Lawlor, C Conway Subs S Cooke for McDonald(35 mins), P Clancy for Fitzgerald (h-t), P McMahon for Parkinson(57 mins)
: J Clarke; P Cashin, B Farrell, C McCarthy, B English, J Hayden, J Byrne; T Walsh, W Power; S Kavanagh, J Nevin, M Carpenter, S Rea, P Hickey, B Kelly Subs B Carbery for Hickey (h-t), R Walker for Rea(62 mins), D Byrne for McCarthy(67 mins) Ref M Ryan (Limerick).