A bond had been broken. The manager, Seamus ‘Cheddar’ Plunkett was gone, his heart broken having felt that a trust had been lost. A man who has put much more than his time into Laois hurling, felt there was no comeback.
The panel was devastated too. Long-serving defender, Matthew Whelan was jettisoned. It was an unseemly mess and it seemed that there was no way they could beat Offaly.
Plunkett was prevailed upon to come back at the beginning of last week and Whelan returned. The blood-letting ended up being victimless — apart from Offaly — and Whelan rewarded his team-mates and boss with a brilliant performance in snuffing out Joe Bergin.
This was the most complete performance by Laois ever, once they improved the precision of their delivery from deep. With Joe Campion excelling as sweeper, and the defenders winning their individual battles too, they needed to make the ball stick up top. Once that happened, Offaly were blown away.
“I’ve said this umpteen times before, that there’s people as passionate about hurling in Laois as there is in any other county,” enthused Plunkett. “We may have a small geographical area to pick from, but nobody can tell me that anybody coming from the hurling area is any less passionate from anybody over the border.
“We knew last year and the year before, in matches against Galway… we were terribly disappointed that we didn’t get over the line and get a victory, to give fans something to shout out about.” The consummate professional, Plunkett was already looking towards the Leinster semi-final against the Tribesmen, a third consecutive meeting for the sides in the championship.
He was quick to label Anthony Cunningham’s men as potential All-Ireland champions but warned that his men would be up for the challenge.
You couldn’t doubt it on this performance. Willie Hyland and Cha Dwyer were monumental contributors for the victors, scoring 12 points between them from play as the home side totted up a remarkable 29 in total.
The progression in their style was very evident, with Tommy Fitzgerald vital in making the ball stick closer to the opposition posts.
“The sweeper system is a defensive system, but as an offensive system we may not have been getting the front foot hurling off the sweeper system. But I don’t think Offaly had any goal chance today, and certainly before the match there was a lot of talk of Shane (Dooley) and Brian (Carroll) burying us with goals, and that didn’t happen… Credit all of the other defenders — they all stepped up.
“We are looking to be a really positive, skilful hurling team. Not to be just a negative team.” Dooley, Carroll and Joe Bergin were rendered toothless but it was the Laois attack that was the difference. Yet when Offaly led by four after Dan Currams’ 24th-minute point, it wasn’t looking good for the hosts, who had a strong wind at their backs. Eight points in a row quickly solved that problem though. Zane Keenan landed a couple of frees before Eoin Reilly used the elements to convert a placed ball from between his 21 and 45. Hyland and Palmer followed up with some sublime scores and Laois were 0-14 to 0-10 ahead at the break.
Offaly needed a quick start to the second half but didn’t get it. Dooley slotted an early free but Laois hit back with points from the industrious Paddy Purcell, Keenan and Dwyer.
The tactic of committing more forward for Reilly’s long puckouts paid dividends on numerous occasions and as the half wore on, Laois began to play with a swagger, dominating aerially and on the deck.
Emmet Nolan, David King and Currams did bring the margin back down to five in the 54th minute but after James Dempsey saved from Maher, Hyland slotted and Keenan pointed from a 60m sideline to make it seven once more.
There was confusion in the 59th minute when James Owens signalled a penalty, believing Cahir Healy handled the sliotar on the ground when he had clearly used his hurley. The referee’s umpires corrected him and the decision overturned. It was exhibition stuff in the final 10 minutes as Laois continued to outwork their opponents, and added an array of flicks and brilliant finishing to their repertoire.
In the end, devastated Offaly manager, Brian Whelahan had no arguments.
“From our point of view, I felt we couldn’t have prepared any better,” said Whelahan. “We had a couple of right good games, players seemed really up for it, but as we said inside, that 1 or 2% that was missing was vital. Laois wanted it that bit more and that’s the most disappointing thing. We were outfought today.”
Z Keenan 0-11(7fs, 1 65, 1 sideline); W Hyland 0-7; C Dwyer 0-5; P Purcell, S Maher 0-2 each; E Reilly(f), D Palmer 0-1 each
S Dooley 0-10 (9fs, 1 65); D Currams 0-4; B Carroll 0-3; J Bergin, K Kiely, E Nolan, D King 0-1 each
E Reilly, M Whelan, B Stapleton, C Healy, J Fitzpatrick, J A Delaney, T Delaney, J Campion, P Purcell, Z Keenan, T Fitzgerald, W Hyland, D Palmer, S Maher, C Dwyer.
P Whelan for Purcell (64), J Walsh for Palmer (70), PJ Scully for Maher (70+1), B Conroy for Fitzgerald (70+2)
J Dempsey, D King, D Shortt, N Wynne, C Parlon, C Egan, P Camon, S Ryan, E Nolan, P Murphy, J Mulrooney, D Currams, S Dooley, B Carroll, J Bergin.
K Kiely for Ryan (ht), E Murphy for Parlon (41), S Cleary for Mulrooney (44), S Wynne for King (61).
J Owens (Wexford)