ANYBODY who saw Laois survive a full-blooded challenge from Mick O’Dwyer’s Wicklow could appreciate where Liam Kearns’ Laois team is at present, and why taking on Wexford in tomorrow’s Leinster GAA championship semi-final in Croke Park represents a serious challenge to his ambitions and those of his players.
Other than Westmeath who (under Páidí Ó Sé) deposed them as Leinster champions in a replayed final in 2004, only Dublin have beaten Laois in provincial competition in the last three years. And that happened twice in the final and the other time at the semi-final stage. Notably, they beat the Dubs on the way to winning the 2003 title against Kildare, but as Kearns points out, the team has undergone a dramatic transformation in the interim period.
It’s a work in progress in developing the team, he readily admits and an essential element of that is cultivating the varying styles of play required in the modern game.
“It is difficult, there’s no point in saying otherwise. We’ve up to eight of the 2003 final gone since the start of the year for various reasons — Fergal Byron, Aidan Fennelly, Kevin Fitzpatrick, Noel Garvan, Chris Conway, Gary Kavanagh, Michael Lawlor and Beano McDonald.’’
On top of that, he was without Tom Kelly and Joe Higgins for the entire League campaign although both of these players were in action in the quarter-final in Carlow, with Kelly in particular making a significant contribution at wing-back. He has no doubt that their availability for the League would have aided the team-building process.
“We certainly should have won three or four of our matches. Inexperience probably cost us at the back because we were conceding too much. That’s what they bring to the backline really. You can’t buy that kind of experience.
“We are building a team and yet we are expected to get results at the same time. The last time I undertook building a team was with Limerick. But I did that in Division 4, with no pressure on, whereas this year we’re building a team in Division 1 — and with all the best teams in the country around us.’’
There is no intention on his part to change the Laois method of play. What he is looking for is a mixture of styles, embracing the short and the long game.
“The most effective teams are those that can play both games, or they have two or three different styles of play. And I think the best example of that is Kerry.
“They can play the short-passing game and they can play the target man. But if you stay with the one style or the other, teams will invariably put something together to stop you playing. So I would like to see them playing both and we know they are good at the short-passing game but the target man at the edge of the square is something they haven’t used before and I want to mix it up.
‘‘I feel very strongly that you need to have two or three — or four — styles of play if you can and you are in a position to take on teams and cause them problems. And that’s what Kerry have. They can play football, they can play it low, and they can play the running game when they have to.
They are a very physical outfit as well, that’s the type of mix you need.’’
Against Wicklow, his team excelled in the first half (turning over 0-8 to 0-2 at the break), but they were lucky to escape with a win after Wicklow were unlucky not to score from four goal chances.
“I think my players got carried away insofar as they were going forward. But we had too many people committed to attack and they were finding a load of space in our backline on the break.
“We weren’t finishing and we were giving them goal chances at the other end. We created 40 scoring chances and we (only) took 15 from play.
‘‘When you have 15 wides, hit five short into the goalkeeper’s hands and hit the post three times that’s 23 attempts at goal with nothing to come from it. These are the stats from a team which loses normally! Contrast that to Wexford. They had three wides (in total) and they shot the lights out in the second half against Meath.’’
Kearns points out that they are coming up against a very settled Wexford side.
“They are a hugely experienced team that are around a long time. We are starting really. The average age in our panel is 23. That’s what it has come down to. We have a lot of young fellows and we have six guys making their debut in Croke Park.’’
Clearly, nothing would please him more than to have another crack at Dublin.
“It will be difficult to win, but I am quite happy that whatever happens in this game or whatever happens in this championship season, the nucleus of a panel is there for Laois to achieve things in the next number of years. It’s a question of getting the balance right.’’
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