It took a year longer than they had hoped but the Laois footballers got their wish last September when John Sugrue was appointed senior manager.
Before Peter Creedon was given the nod, the 2016 panel had articulated their desire to the county board that the Renard man take over from Mick Lillis. Physio to the team in 2012 and ’13, the appointment didn’t come about although it was understandable why the players backed him. In 2015, he had guided South Kerry to a county title having been a trainer alongside Pat O’Shea when Kerry claimed a second successive All-Ireland title in 2007.
A member of the Park-Ratheniska club outside Portlaoise and with his Laois Physiotherapy Clinic well established in the middle of the town, Sugrue is assimilated in the county at this stage. It being his adopted home, there was an allure to take the helm but then there is obviously an attraction in awakening a dormant county that were demoted to Division 4 last year.
“One of the things that appealed to me most was that I live here. My wife is from Laois, my kids are Laois and I would know a lot of the footballers and would have been involved with them in different guises through the years.
“I think they’re capable of doing better and it’s just a case of testing that theory. I’m going to have a go at it and see how we go in terms of trying to push them on. If we can’t, we can’t but if we can then great.
“We have to answer a few simple questions first – are we capable of engaging in the process to try and improve the football? In fairness to the lads, they’ve knuckled down reasonably well in training. The second one is that how determined are we not to revert back to type and be individual on game days. We have to stick together as a team and that’s probably our second stepping stone along the way. Then it’s up to us to put in front of them a programme of football that excites them and gets them enjoying their football again and see the potential for results. But there are a lot of questions to answer before we get to that point.”
That Laois football has suffered goes without saying. Six years ago, they were in Division 1. Sugrue isn’t interested in going over old ground – “to point fingers is futile to a great degree”. But there must be a recognition across the board that attitudes and processes must change.
“There are a lot of facets to it,” he says. “The boys’ ownership of it themselves as well but ownership only comes from responsibility being placed upon them. We’re going to try and place that on fellas to do stuff on the field and back it up the next time to ensure there’s no leak in the system that we’re trying to create.
“As a management, we would have a belief in what we’re doing and it’s only one view on it: “There are multiple views on how football should be played throughout the country so there are a lot of questions unanswered as far as I’m concerned. It’s about how the boys engage with us and how we engage with them.”
Engaging with supporters too will be important when so often in recent years the travelling support has outnumbered the Laois following in O’Moore Park. Sugrue is pragmatic enough to know that only performances can get people back shouting for the team: “There’s no two ways about it – Laois football has been on a downward curve for the last couple of years. You see any team that follows that curve and the attraction to them and the urge to follow them is not great so I wouldn’t blame any Laois supporter high up or high down. We have to concentrate on our job, which is to move Laois football moving forward a small bit and then I’ve absolutely no doubt that if we do that Laois people will support us.
Sugrue will give more new faces a chance to shine against Westmeath in tomorrow’s O’Byrne Cup game in Stradbally after the same opponents narrowly beat them last weekend.
“Our first game was last weekend, we didn’t play any challenge games so we’re only really learning about ourselves now. We’re getting there slowly.”
He has no gripes with the intense calendar this year.
“The schedule is the schedule. It’s the same for every team. We just have to turn up for every game and be ready and put our varying emphasis on games depending on what we’re looking for out of that game. There’s no mad issue.”
After Tomás Ó Flatharta, Sugrue is the second Kerryman to manage Laois in three years but the first from South Kerry since you know who. However, that’s where the current incumbent ends all similarities.
“We’re talking about chalk and cheese there! Micko has been there and done it all. I’m only a gasún compared to him. No, I’ve been managing a few years and it’s great to have been there and made mistakes along the way. I’m sure I’ll make plenty more but it’s about learning from them and pushing on. Micko’s different timber altogether.”
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