Nine years living in Laois, John Sugrue considers himself naturalised, but after guiding the Leinster county to a second successive promotion, his native Kerry colours so much of his management ethos
The irony of being asked to play into April isn’t lost on John Sugrue. Twelve months ago, he took his Laois squad to Caherciveen on a training camp, an exercise for which they were punished as it fell just outside the permitted 10-day window before their opening Leinster SFC game against Wexford. Home advantage for their Division 3 game this year was taken away from them and Louth ended up beating the Laois men in Croke Park.
Sugrue doesn’t mind that today’s Division 3 final against Westmeath takes place in the club month but then he has no issue with it being designated specifically for club weekend matches either. Where he does draw the line, is how the calendar can be altered to suit the powers-that-be. “The rules bend one way but they don’t bend the other way. Then others bend them for themselves.”
It wasn’t until after Laois played four County League games in April that the panel embarked on their Kerry camp, close to Sugrue’s own Renard homestead. The rules have since been relaxed but he wonders if the will to abide by them is strong.
“We took our punishment no problem and lost our game in Croke Park. That’s our own issue; we took the risk and we did that. But if we are going to be a better organisation, there should be proper rules that are enforced for everyone.
We’re all big boys now. Our actions are one thing but the consequence of our actions should be something we are all willing to take.
"Ducking and diving behind bending rules is not the best way to go about things.”
Sugrue’s ire is clearly aimed at those counties who managed to wriggle their way out of suspensions. Dublin’s footballers were among those who escaped sanction by explaining their trip to France was not for training. In his thought-provoking letter to the Laois Today website last November, Sugrue’s dig at Dublin’s Somme trip was thinly veiled. He suggested Laois this year might “head back to Kerry and collect receipts from a visit to Daniel O’Connell’s birthplace to ensure we have a historical purpose as the main aspect of our trip”.
Tongue-in-cheek it was and Laois won’t be doing anything of the sort as their Leinster SFC opener this year comes two weeks later, May 26 against Westmeath. But it’s evident the matter still irritates Sugrue. “To my mind, if they want to make April sacrosanct for clubs - and I’d have no problem with that - then let’s play two weekends later at least in May so that you can go for your training camp two weeks out.
“Inter-county teams put a lot of resources into training and preparations but then you find yourselves handcuffed to a 10 or 11-day lead-in period and I don’t think that’s fair.”
The letter was an opportunity to hit back but being truthful he felt compelled to address the Laois supporters considering it was they who would be discommoded by losing home advantage.
“The Laois fans came on board with us hugely last year and to some degree, I just wanted to clarify our position. It was more a case for our own people. The bigger picture is for the GAA to sort out but I didn’t want Laois people saying, ‘What are this crowd at letting go a home League game?’. The reason it was done was to prepare our boys properly for Championship and I just wanted to clear the air on that front.”
Earlier in this decade, Laois’ following has often been outnumbered in O’Moore Park but under Sugrue numbers have swelled. Winning helps, but he recalls how they joined the players on the pitch after the recent home victory over Carlow and “nobody knew if we had been promoted or not, the supporters didn’t care. If our
efforts and those of the county board are not of the required standard then people do tend to fall off a little bit and that’s understandable. It’s our job to sustain that interest.”
Many supporters would see Sugrue as one of their own too. Nine years living in the county - “I haven’t lost the T yet in my words!” - and his Laois Physiotherapy Clinic in Portlaoise firmly established, the 41-year-old has been naturalised. Renard will always be home but he, his wife Susan built their home a few years back and their six-year-old son Conor is schooling and playing football in Ratheniska.
Before life took over, Sugrue would regularly have driven back to South Kerry to play. As manager of the divisional side when they claimed Kerry senior honours four years ago, the journey was made a little shorter as midweek training took place in Barraduff. But in the next week or two, the clan will head south-west.
“Mum and Dad are below and the auld fella is lambing ewes like mad at the moment and would be thankful for another pair of hands. It’s one of those things, they have probably come up more than they would have. We’ve made our decision, we’re in Laois and we’re nicely settled. Sue’s family is here and it’s important to be around family.”
Sugrue smiles at how appropriate it is to be wearing the blue and white now as he did for Renard but years before he took over from Peter Creedon he would have donned the colours as physio under Justin McNulty in 2012 and ‘13. He’s been a supporter too. “Since Sue and myself started going out, I’ve been to Leinster finals and worn Laois colours. You just fall in because you have to contribute to where you are. Laois has been very good to me in a community sense and in a work sense.
“We’ve got good guys in the management team like Robbie Cannon from Dublin and Brian Breen who’s from Cork but is a naturalised Laois man as well. There are lots of people contributing to the Laois cause and I think they’ve assimilated themselves well. You can’t be distant. My young fella is Laois and when we’re playing football on the lawn at home he’s calling out the names of who he wants to be and it’s Laois names and that’s good to hear.
“That’s what I used to do when I was a young fella with some of the Kerry names. I think it’s one of those things, that if you can get Laois fellas having that sort of impact on young fellas then the future might be a bit brighter. Because there’s a hand-me-down filtration from the senior players; what young guys hear and see and experience has a bearing on them.”
Senior Football Manager John Sugrue has announced his starting team for The Allianz League Division 3 final . We wish all the players and Management the very best and hope you will get up to Croke park to support them. Laoisabu19 pic.twitter.com/AbmnBWorvU— Laois GAA (@CLGLaois) April 4, 2019
Sugrue identifies Laois folk as having their own distinct trait. “I’d say they’re fairly independent. I don’t think Laois people look up or down at anyone. They go about things in their interests. An opposition is an opposition; they don’t treat anyone differently. It’s a great thing to be independent of mind and focused and if we stay like that as a group and give the opposition the right respect then we won’t be too bad.”
It’s that understanding that convinced Sugrue to take the helm, the chance to do so in 2016 coming possibly a year too early. Accepting the gig certainly wasn’t for business reasons, as much as it might seem his day job complements it.
“As I mentioned, people are independent of mind so they’re not going to pick a phone to go get treated by you. You’ve got to work from nine to five and you’ve got to work as best as you can for people because if you don’t they’re not going to use the service we provide. There will be work after football. You absolutely have to run them as separates.”
Needing to be able to push players also means his occupation and pursuit don’t always run parallel. But then Sugrue wants to see his players using their own initiative to get the best out of themselves.
He’s reminded of how a busted Declan O’Sullivan went beyond the call of duty to assist South Kerry in beating Legion in the 2015 Kerry final replay. “He went down with another cartilage injury, which ultimately finished his career. I remember our physio Jimmy Galvin, a good friend of mine, went into him on the field and said to him, ‘Look, your time is up, you have to come off the field’.
“Declan, on the flat of his back, looked up and apparently told him, ‘Sure, I can’t. The game is in the pot.’
“He played on and we won but that ability to go into yourself and find something that’s not necessary was so key and I see that a bit in some of our guys. But it needs to be seen more across the board.”
Calling it like it is and while it was enough to earn promotion, Sugrue didn’t see enough of those characteristics across this year’s Division 3
To some degree early on we were struggling but we’re now striving to get closer to those seven, seven-and-a-half-out-of-10 I think we can operate at reasonably well.
"In the Louth game, we got ourselves prepared for it in what we thought was a reasonable manner but we turned up on the day and they out-charactered us with regards to their pressure game.
“The good thing about this League final is we’re coming up another of the teams to beat us and we have a chance to see how we can get to them.
He talks of the culture that is required and powered by the players. “If we set out expectations for the team, what are their expectations of each other? If the expectations are put out for everybody and there’s a clear sense if people aren’t meeting them, then there’s no whingeing; It’s a case of everybody knowing what’s expected in a playing sense. Once we abide by a couple of main principles, the group rules itself.”
A second visit to Croke Park this year can only benefit Laois, Sugrue argues. Although, he would like to see non-Dublin counties facing the All-Ireland champions there given more pre-match access to the place.
“Croke Park is a great place to go play. Young fellas want to play in Croke Park and it’s a great experience for people so I don’t think it’s an issue, really. Certainly, if the GAA were thinking about it they might grant a little bit more access to counties playing against Dublin. Maybe you might get up for a session or two there before you play a game, maybe that would level it out a bit and the surroundings would be that bit more familiar. That’s another way of skinning that cat, maybe.
“You talk to any of the young sportspeople around the world, they want to play in Yankee Stadium, they want to play in the MCG in Melbourne. It’s one of those things and why deny them the chance of it? To prepare properly it is the thing to do because it is a different stadium to any other one in the country.”
Division 2 next year will expose Laois to more referees on the Championship panel. Sugrue didn’t necessarily have an issue with how games were officiated in Division 3 this year but questions some of the appointments. “The only thing I would say about it is if you shouldn’t be refereeing in a division involving your own county. Let’s say a Laois man refereeing a Division 3 game this year, I would consider that unacceptable because he’s a Laois man and the other two teams are involved in a competition with his county. If you cast your mind back over a lot of fixtures, we had that situation (for example, Offaly’s Fergal Smyth refereed Laois-Sligo and Longford’s Patrick Maguire took charge of Louth-Sligo).
“I don’t think it’s particularly healthy - the referees should be spread around.”
The progress extends beyond the dressing room in Laois too. Laois’ new Centre of Excellence beside O’Moore Park is something Sugrue says the players have to show pride in. “A little discipline is needed to make sure it’s kept in good order,” he says.
Since he’s come in, the communication lines between the various county teams have also been improved. “Trying to get a bit of structure at under-age with regard to strength and conditioning and the scheduling of training. We have started cross-the-board meeting between seniors, U20s and U17s with the county board, getting updates on how the younger squads are doing and giving updates on how our squad is doing and trying to tie it up altogether.”
He would love to watch more footage.
Video is huge but the only thing is it’s time-consuming and it’s all-consuming if you really go into detail. At present, I probably don’t do near enough of it but it’s as much as I can do.
His time spent studying in Belfast also exposed him to Ulster football.
“You would have got an insight into what their mindset is but that insight is useful to a certain degree because you know what’s behind it and you know what you’re facing when you come up against a northern brand of football.” But those core Kerry philosophies never left him. “You have to have an intention to win. Limiting the opposition from scoring is one thing but you have to score yourself to win a game. It’s trying to get the balance and have a view towards the bigger picture. We finish Division 3 then go into the open territory and you could be playing Division 1, 2, 3 or 4 on any given weekend. If you’re looking at it you have to play football. If you look at the current trend, teams who play football are winning. Dublin are playing football and Kerry and Mayo over the last eight to 10 years are playing football and winning to some degree.
“It’s trying to find the balance between front and back and seeing where your balance is. I think football is football and you’ve got to be willing to use your foot. There are times when you have to hold onto the ball and slow it down and eke out a score and then there are other times when it’s more open. It’s having the gears to move between those.”
Under Sugrue, the evidence suggests Laois are throttling up.