Laois bid for another miracle

Last Saturday, Billy Sheehan strode out of the Laois dressing room in Wexford Park, a beaming smile across his bearded face, and implored one journalist to keep writing Laois off.

Laois bid for another miracle

It was a scene that bore a striking resemblance to one five years earlier when the Kerry native said much the same to a group of reporters in O’Moore Park as he departed the field having played a crucial role in his adopted county’s defeat of Tyrone in that year’s qualifiers.

That remains to this day the one and only time in the dozen years since the new system was introduced that any reigning All-Ireland champions lost their bearings whilst detouring through the back door.

Today, a Laois team containing three survivors from that day — Sheehan, Ross Munnelly and Padraig McMahon — has the opportunity to repeat history as they face Donegal in a round-four encounter at Carrick-on-Shannon.

Among the wagon trail of cars that will meander its way through Tullamore and Mullingar towards Páirc Sean MacDiarmada will be Chris Conway who, like Sheehan, was so central to that defeat of Mickey Harte’s side in 2006.

The counties had met in the back door two years previously, but Laois stumbled into that meeting having lost a Leinster final replay to Westmeath and a plethora of players to injury and illness.

Conway was one of them, having missed the Westmeath replay with a bout of appendicitis, and the sorry state Laois found themselves in by the end was symbolised by a horror ankle injury suffered by Brian ‘Beano’ McDonald.

Tyrone, too, had their own absentees that day but nothing like the number when they made the trip to Portlaoise in 2006 with Brian Dooher and Brian McGuigan among those restricted to the casualty list.

Everyone knew the champions were vulnerable but few expected a Laois side that had conceded 3-17 to Dublin in a Leinster semi-final to be the ones to put a wounded side out of its misery so early in the summer.

“We had a few weeks after the Leinster semi-final to regroup,” said Conway.

“That result had been a massive disappointment. We’d won Leinster in 2003, lost the final to Westmeath a year later and been beaten in it by Dublin by a point after being well behind in ’05.

“The difference in ’06 was that they had added a couple of scores on after getting the early lead and it became a massacre. Micko famously took the reins in training again for the few weeks after that. He put us through a couple of hard sessions and it knocked the lethargic hangover out of us. That toughened us mentally.

“Laois this year and last year have got some of the weaker counties in the earlier rounds of the qualifiers and that allowed them get back on the road. We came straight in against Tyrone but that works both ways: sometimes that makes you stand up and be counted.”

Looking back, the aftermath of the game remains etched in the memory every bit as much as the contest itself with goalkeeper Fergal Byron and defender Aidan Fennelly voicing the grim satisfaction the side took from such an unexpected performance.

Byron, a selector under current manager Justin McNulty, went so far as to suggest that defeat would have sent Laois back to square one, where Micko had found them, bedraggled and without hope late in 2002.

“You don’t train from October, give up practically your whole life, just to have people saying you’re useless and you’ve no bottle,” was Fennelly’s take on it. “That’s what people have been saying the last two weeks.”

What made the win all the more remarkable was that it was eked out amidst a background of King Lear-like wind and rain and few gave the hosts much chance when they turned into the wind after the break with just a three-point lead.

Instead, a physically light side renowned for guile rather than grit dominated the third quarter and the victory was all the better for the fact that it was the only time in O’Dwyer’s time in charge that they bettered Tyrone or Armagh.

Harte’s side had previously eviscerated them in the 2003 league final and that qualifier a year later while Joe Kernan had masterminded their downfall in two All-Ireland quarter-finals.

“It was a huge boost,” said Conway. “Mentally, it was hugely important for us. Tyrone and Armagh were the benchmarks at the time and the trend would have been to copy what they were doing in training. We came in for a lot of criticism for the training we were doing in comparison so to beat them was big for us.”

Donegal’s origins and status as All-Ireland champions may offer a bridge to that day but so much else is different. Laois will not have home advantage today, this year’s crop is not an equal for the class of five years back and Donegal are not hampered by the same litany of injuries.

That said, Conway does see parallels which need to come to pass. Laois will need to get their noses in front again and tempt Donegal out to play and what is now a more physically imposing side will need to bring that muscle mass to bear against a side with just six days to bounce back off the ropes of an Ulster final loss. Do that and Sheehan may yet get to chide a few more reporters tonight.

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