Nowhere in Portlaoise GAA club’s impressive plans to develop the 38-acre site was the term ‘sea of pitches’ mentioned.
By now, the club had planned to be utilising state of the art facilities there thanks to the €19m earmarked from the sale of their base next to O’Moore Park in the town.
From a dozen dressing rooms to bar, lounge, restaurant facilities to a swimming pool and fully stocked gym, it was headline-grabbing stuff.
Portlaoise’s tale of woe has been well documented, of course. Depending on who you speak to at the club, they were saddled with debts of between €6.5m and €7.5m when the deal fell through in early 2009 because of planning issues at their original ground.
The impact of the difficulties on the players and management has been less examined. Joint manager Mick Lillis says the truth is it has been a time of ‘drudgery’ and that but for the focus offered by competitions like the Leinster club championship, players may have simply thrown their hat at it.
“It’s the one thing that has kept us going, that has given us an out in terms of getting away from the drudgery and heartbreak of the stuff that has happened off the park,” said Lillis.
“Without it, you’d say that lads might go on the beer for 12 months. It has just kept the club together, kept the lads together, that unity. It has created a bond that will be there forever among those young lads.”
Bald statistics indicate a business as usual atmosphere within the club. Since being lumbered with those vast debts, the club’s footballers have won the Leinster club title and played in two finals. Tomorrow will be their third since 2009. Against the backdrop of Dublin’s mega wealthy clubs, theirs is a far more modest approach.
“It has had a big impact because at the start of the year our budget to look after the senior team was zero. That was it,” he continued.
“It was a case of, ‘you’re in charge of the senior team lads, you have no money to work with, off you go. Anything you need, you raise the money yourselves, that’s it’. The lads put in a few quid themselves each week to play. They run their own players’ fund. If we need anything, say we need a DVD analysis done, the lads pay for that.”
Lillis gives another example of how their preparations have been affected.
“We are in training on the new pitches but for the last few weeks we’ve been back training on the old pitch because there’s no lights at the new one,” he said.
There are crumbs of comfort to the tale at least. Portlaoise still have possession of their original ground , prime land. And they have been able to make use of the pitches at Rathleague, albeit a vastly scaled down version of what was planned.
Ultimately, the club’s debt will have to be written off entirely or significantly because they won’t be paying it back. It’s simply impossible.
“Infrastructurally, we’re very poor and that cannot change until such time as our debt has been dealt with,” said Lillis. “The banks and NAMA and all of these people are very slow to deal with it so we’re kind of in a limbo.”
GAA president Liam O’Neill, a Laois man himself, is optimistic it won’t all drag on for years.
“All I’d say is that I’d be more optimistic than that,” said O’Neill. “It’s a difficult conundrum to solve. We’ve a very small number of clubs in the difficulty that Portlaoise are in and we’re fortunate not to have been caught for more with the way things went. But I wouldn’t be as pessimistic as that about [Portlaoise’s situation].”
O’Neill is keen to place on record his admiration of Portlaoise’s survival spirit through it all. They are not just keeping afloat but are buoyant.
“They could have crumbled under the pressure but they didn’t,” said O’Neill. “They’re still fielding teams and they’ve got a senior team in the Leinster final. It’s an incredible achievement.”
Naturally, there has been some finger wagging among club members but it’s the future that Lillis is focusing on.
“We can’t undo it. All we can do is move on and look after the youth that’s coming up for the future of the club.”