It is not too often you have heard an inter-county footballer say he didn’t expect to be in a Leinster final at the start of the year, but that’s exactly what long-serving Niall Donoher was thinking.
And he is not shy about admitting it.
“There is no point in beating around the bush,” he confesses. “We started off at a pretty low ebb this year. Personally, I didn’t think this day would come around when we were starting out the year.
“But we had a good league, confidence was built up when we got a few wins. And the group has really gotten tight and we know what we were about. Once we got through the league, I don’t feel surprised now.”
There is a health warning surrounding a nine-game winning habit that has been accumulated against Division 3 and 4 opposition but a winning run beats a losing one and Laois players know all about losing.
It isn’t by accident they ended in the bottom tier of the league and they could not pass it off as in irrelevance either, as the Championship has offered no solace either.
So while there was new management, and some fresh blood, the realists were looking for little more than escaping the Division 4 quagmire and picking up a win or two during the summer.
“The last few years have been very, very tough. There is no point in saying otherwise. Confidence was low in the group. But just from the start of the year, there have been a good few new lads that have come in, the older lads have come back and really knuckled down this year. It is paying dividends. It is amazing what a few wins can do, how much it can raise confidence.”
It says much for Donoher’s mental fortitude that he is around to be involved.
He was laid low initially by a dreadful injury suffered in an O’Byrne Cup match against Carlow in 2012, which required microfracture surgery. He twisted awkwardly and the cartilage catapulted out of the side of his knee.
There were numerous related problems subsequently however and he would miss out on two championships and three league campaigns. Many thought he’d never make it back. And the versatile Courtwood man was amongst them.
“In your own head, you will go through those feelings. Sometimes, it would come into my head that maybe I wasn’t going to get back here. But I had loads of unbelievable people behind me and got loads of backing. In fairness, I wasn’t left to do anything on my own. All the people backed me and I put in the work — and the knee has been good ever since.
“The surgeon said there was no reason why I couldn’t go back playing football as long as I managed it properly. It is just something that I have to manage. It has been good since, and touch wood, I haven’t had many problems with it since. I will stay going as long as I can.”
He was fortunate enough that Justin McNulty and the Laois County Board allowed him to stay on. The services of conditioner, Barry Solan were invaluable. So too those of the physio, a certain John Sugrue.
Now, he is back in tandem with the Kerry native and delighted to be able to do his thing on the pitch, as he did in exceptional fashion in the semi-final victory over Carlow.
Finally, after a time when the public had deserted them, there is a buzz around Laois football once more.
“It has taken a while to get going but it is coming back. And I think it is really about the kids. The kids are dragging their parents to it and they are coming back. The buzz is coming back. You can see Laois flags up and flying around the place again.”
He could only watch on from the sideline when Laois gave Dublin the fright of their lives in the All-Ireland quarter-final six years ago. He knows there is a gulf in class but this summer journey is all about progress for Laois.
“There was only a kick of the ball in it that day, but that is a long time ago now and the teams have moved in opposite directions since then.
“You only have to look at the league tables and our championship results since then to see that, but we are hopefully moving in the right direction now.”