Road to recovery will be long and bumpy for Laois

Traffic aside, it’s a straightforward spin from Portlaoise to Croke Park.

Road to recovery will be long and bumpy for Laois

Seventy minutes would do it on a good day and yet HQ has become a distant dream for this generation of Laois footballers and supporters as the county seeks to scramble back up the ladder it careered down in recent years.

It’s 15 years now since Micko made them kings of Leinster.

Between 2003 and 2007 Laois played 27 championship games. Eighteen of them, or 66.6%, were contested in Croke Park. Of their 41 summer soundings since, only a dozen (12%) have been heard on the streets of Dublin 3.

Some context is needed here. The Leinster Council has reduced its footprint in Croke Park since the early to mid-noughties, when provincial football quarter-finals were a common sight at the ground, but that trend still helps paint a damning picture.

Today will mark their first visit since 2014.

“It’s great to see the Division 4 final played there. Lots of fellas won’t have been there a whole pile as supporters or players,” said current coach John Sugrue ahead of today’s decider with Carlow. “So, it is great to get up there.”

It took Laois just six seasons to career from Division 1 to the basement division. The question now is whether their promotion back to the third tier is the start of an epic trek back in the opposite direction.

A more extensive renaissance looks unlikely for now.

Life in Division 4 was comfortable enough with an average winning margin of over five points per game and they managed to rein in the on-field indiscipline that resulted in regular red cards last term and which contributed to their relegation last year.

The locals remain aloof, for the most part.

Laois have played before pitiful crowds for the last decade now and the sight of their supporters being outnumbered in O’Moore Park is a regular one against Ulster opposition.

The last two outings did deliver a bump in that respect with the trip to play London in Ruislip offering a novelty factor and the local derby against Carlow in the last round bringing with it the promise that a win would take them up.

Chris Conway, a key forward for Laois in the days when they were routinely making provincial finals and plying their spring trade in the top tier, and a former captain, took in both of those games and more besides.

“John has them trying to play a more attacking style of football with a big emphasis on kick passing but they’ve come up against a lot of defensive teams in Division 4 starting with Limerick the first day and up to the last day against Carlow.

“Carlow were as extreme against Laois as they were against Dublin last year with the one man up front, but a lot of people would have walked away from Dr Cullen Park disillusioned with the Laois performance and the way football is going in general.”

Sugrue’s side were clinging on by the end, Kieran Lillis having been sent off early in the second half, but there is a recognition that what is a youthful and maybe even an experimental side needs that sort of experience.

The Kerryman is just six months into the job of resurrecting the county’s fortunes and he spoke early on in the league about how his team was still learning to win games. Conway, too, sees it as no bad thing that Laois are engaged in the odd tricky battle.

Six debuts were handed out for the first league game, against Limerick, and the auditions continued right up to last week with Portarlington’s Robbie Piggott being handed his first ever league start.

Other rookies have been allowed find their feet even after a number of slips. That sort of backing is crucial to young players who can feel free to express themselves in the knowledge that one error or bad game won’t be curtains for their inter-county career.

It’s not all about the next generation.

For years now, the suspicion has been that Laois fortunes have not matched the abilities of their players. Among the vets still serving are Ross Munnelly, Colm Begley, John O’Loughlin and Donie Kingston.

Maybe the standout player has been Ballylinan’s Gary Walsh who with 4-41 had scored more than any player in any division before posting an astonishingly ill-advised tweet about the recent Belfast court case involving two Irish rugby internationals.

He’s now dropped for the final. It’s long past the stage where Laois prompted a good-news story.

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