Eddie Brennan had seen this coming.
Maybe not the result and the madness it spawned when the final whistle was blown and the wave of humanity engulfed him and his players, but he knew long before yesterday afternoon that his Laois team was primed to deliver something special.
He had seen it in training on the Friday night. The players had been given leave to celebrate last weekend’s Joe McDonagh Cup final defeat of Westmeath on the Sunday night and again on the Monday but they were purring by Friday. These boys had had a taste of glory and they wanted more.
“I left here Friday evening after we had a meeting with the players and we announced the team. I rang (selector) Niall Corcoran on the road up and just said, ‘I think we are right here. I think we have them’, because they drove on the meeting, they drove on the training.”
Laois would have been forgiven for going through the motions. The background noise all week was the inherent disadvantage they faced having to turn around so quickly for an All-Ireland preliminary quarter-final after the high of winning in Croke Park and sealing their place in next year’s Leinster Championship.
There wasn’t a bit of that they listened to.
Instead, the players delivered a performance that discommoded Dublin from first minute to last. They stormed from the blocks and stayed the course though to the 73rd minute and, by doing that, they delivered the biggest hurling result in the county’s modern history.
Some context: the considered view in Portlaoise afterwards was that this stands as their biggest championship result since the 1985 Leinster semi-final defeat of Wexford. It earns them a meeting with Tipperary next in what will be their first All-Ireland quarter-final since the loss to Galway at that stage in 1979.
All this on the back of so much loss and despondency.
This time last year they were just about avoiding relegation to the third-tier Christy Ring. Skip back eight years and Cork were hitting them for ten goals in a championship game in O’Moore Park. And they stand merely as the bookmarks to a whole heap of suffering and misfortune this decade.
Over 20 players refused Brennan’s advances when he started late last year and the fallout from last year’s county final, when Ross King was left with horrendous facial injuries, was still festering. More than a few people told the Kilkenny man he was mad taking this thing on. And look at them now, not so much a happy camp as a delirious one.
Brennan, though, insists this isn’t about him.
“They are mighty men and we have seen them grow through the year. That’s what you want as a manager and at times they drove it, which is what it is all about. You give players the tools to go and perform on the pitch. I don’t need to tell you where I found that out.
“That’s the reality. To me, still, hurling is a very simple game. You have to be able to execute the basic skills under fatigue and under pressure. I never doubted their skill level or their ability to get stuck in. I was bouncing going down the road Friday evening because I knew they were going to be well up for it.”
The truth is that team and management have been good for each other, never more than yesterday when they seemed to surprise Dublin with their use of a spare defender and outdid their opponents for effort and character and, it has to be said, the quality of their execution.
Dublin were poor. That can’t be ignored. Maybe it was the three weeks they had off, maybe it was complacency, or maybe it was the manner in which Laois got in their faces physically. Whatever the reason, they allowed the underdogs the boon of a big opening quarter and then let them slip through their grasp when they finally gained parity with 55 minutes played.
That last bit is important. Laois held the lead for all but a handful of minutes. This was no smash-and-grab raid. Their advantage was buttressed by a sixth-minute Aaron Dunphy goal that emanated from some superb scavenging and sheer force of will down the end line by Willie Dunphy who was superb all afternoon and ended with four points to his name.
Dublin, who were far too narrow in attack for long periods, never seemed to get their heads around the presence of John Lennon as a sweeper for Laois and the visitors were making matters all the worse with a string of poorly executed strikes on the sticks. They ended the game with 17 wides against them.
They still had their chances to scupper the insurrection. Twice, once midway through the first-half and again in the third quarter, they had their foot to the opposition’s throat, dominating possession and scoring but just not to the extent that it ever broke Laois’ will or concentration.
The composed nature of the winners’ performance against the odds was evident when Dublin finally drew level with 15 minutes to play – having trailed by six at one point – and Laois responded with a hat-trick of scores. Even at the end they were playing out from the back with short balls from the goalkeeper.
There were turning points. Enda Rowland made an astonishing save from Danny Sutcliffe after 48 minutes and another stop in the third minute of extra-time when he tipped a free over the bar from Sean Moran who had salvaged a draw against Wexford in a similar manner earlier this summer.
A third game in 15 days awaits them next Sunday. Don’t expect any complaints about that.
Scorers for Dublin:
O O’Rorke (0-12, 0-10 free, 0-1 ‘65’); C Boland (0-3); R Hayes and D Sutcliffe (both 0-2); C Keaney, E Dillon (both 0-1); S Moran and P Ryan (both 0-1 free).
Scorers for Laois:
M Kavanagh (0-9, 0-6 frees, 0-1 ‘65’); A Dunphy (1-2); W Dunphy (0-4); E Rowland (0-2 frees); C Dwyer (0-2); J Kelly, P Purcell, R King (all 0-1).
A Nolan; P Smyth, S Barrett, J Madden; C Crummey, S Moran, D O’Connell; S Treacy, T Connolly; C Keaney, D Sutcliffe, C Boland; O O’Rorke, R Hayes, E Dillon. Subs: F Whitely for Treacy (53); P Ryan for Keaney (57); J Hetherton for Boland (65).
E Rowland; L Cleere, M Whelan, J Phelan; J Kelly, R Mullaney, P Delaney; C Dwyer, P Purcell; E Lyons, M Kavanagh, A Dunphy; W Dunphy, J Lennon, R King. Subs: E Killeen for Delaney (54); C Dunphy for Kelly (58); S Bergin for King (63); E Gaughan for Kavanagh (70).
A Kelly (Galway).