Darren Strong brought a decade of service with the Laois footballers to an end in January, but thoughts of the county jersey couldn’t help but continue to invade his thoughts.
The Emo man’s business, DS Sports, sells sportswear, teamwear, and other sports equipment and it has gone from strength to strength in its first five years, with orders being taken from across the country as well as abroad.
GAA apparel is, understandably given his background and expertise, a large part of what he does and the offering has expanded lately to include a handful of retro jerseys with Dublin, Kildare, and Laois now part of the catalogue.
The Laois version, a classic design from the 1980s with the traditional white hoop and a royal blue hue, is a beaut. It even has a Guaranteed Irish logo. It is to Laois what the Offaly ’82 away jersey is to their midland neighbours.
The aesthetic isn’t the only thing to say for it. The 1980s still strike a resonant, if bittersweet, chord. The county hurlers beat Limerick, Tipperary, and Galway to reach the Centenary Cup final in 1984 and came close more than once to an historic breakthrough in Leinster.
The footballers won a National League title in ’86 but they too were left with regrets. One of the few counties to have provided an All-Ireland senior finalist in both codes, the decade was as close as Laois would ever come to being a twin threat at the same time so it’s no surprise but that the uniform worn then still commands such loyalty.
“I had been looking into the idea and then Stephen Miller (the editor of the Laois Today website) sent me a picture of the 1980s version and I knew straight away that was the one,” said Strong.
“I jumped at it. I bought them pre-sale at first because I didn’t want to be stuck with them but they’re flying out now. I’d say it’s predominantly football people are buying them but I’ve seen more of them at the hurling games lately as well. We’re selling a lot of them to the States, to people who would have left the county back around that time, and John Costello (who played on the ‘86 National League team) was onto me from Spain where he lives now looking for one as well.”
Strong estimates that over 300 of the jerseys have been offloaded. Another hundred were due to arrive from his supplier in Pakistan late this week as John Sugrue’s footballers face into an All-Ireland qualifier against Cork and Eddie Brennan’s hurlers welcome Dublin to O’Moore Park with a place in the last eight awaiting the winners.
As noted earlier this week, Laois, Dublin, and Cork are the only counties left in the country who could theoretically capture both the Sam Maguire and the Liam MacCarthy Cups. That both the Laois senior sides are still playing competitively at this late stage is a success in itself given both have experienced some tough times in recent years.
Laois is by no means a large county but the code’s respective heartlands are clear and obvious. Portlaoise, a provider of players for both codes down the years, lies roughly in the centre but you won’t find a single football club from last year’s senior ranks to the west of it or one senior hurling outfit to the east.
Dig deeper and thinner veins are visible in the ‘other’s’ sphere of influence. Former county hurler and Portlaoise exile Cyril Duggan has introduced hurling to the schools in and around Emo, for example, but, of the two sides, the footballers look a better bet to do something memorable this weekend.
“John has put Laois back on the map again and it would be something else if they could get to the Super 8s,” said Strong. “I reckon they have a great chance. I’d class that Monaghan team that beat Laois in the fourth round qualifier last year as better than Cork this time around. This Laois team is younger and fitter and stronger now too. I don’t know what happened them in that Meath game, in the Leinster semi-final. They looked nervous for whatever reason, but they’ve shown since that they’re much better than that.”
For Laois, business hasn’t been this good in a long time.