Leo Turley’s memories of the 1997 Leinster quarter-final between Laois and Kildare are hazy but he remembers well the 70 minutes of skirmishing between himself and Davy Dalton at one end of Croke Park and the 30 seconds of madness at the other.
Only nine minutes had passed when Westmeath referee Pat Casserley sent two of Kildare’s key forwards, Johnny McDonald and Martin Lynch, to the stands for separate off-the-ball incidents. “Right, we have these boys now,” the Laois forward thought at the time.
You couldn’t blame him. Accounts as to what actually prompted the red mists and cards vary. “The sendings off were lousy,” Kildare midfielder Willie McCreery says. With 13 men, Kildare looked goosed.
The Lilywhites hadn’t won a championship game since 1993. It was Laois who had turfed them out in ‘96 and the midlanders were favourites even before their opponents, not exactly renowned for their intestinal fortitude, were reduced to 13 men with an hour to go. But Laois didn’t win. They never even led once.
The Kildare Nationalist declared the next week their boys had shown “a rare, and welcome, ability to withstand the championship heat”.
Mick O’Dwyer, having just returned for a second spell in charge, was chaired off by jubilant fans.
“The problem for us was teams back then just didn’t have all sorts of game plans worked on,” Turley says of a day. “We just didn’t have a Plan B for a situation like that and we missed some good chances in the first-half as well.” The rider Kildare were superb spills quickly from his lips. The rallying cry, according to midfielder Willie McCreery, was ‘hold possession, hold possession’ and Laois made that a damn sight easier by deploying both of their spare men as sweepers.
Madness. But more astonishing was the free count. One report had it Kildare were awarded 52 to just 16 for Laois. Another registered it at 48-18. Either would surely be a record and even the Kildare Nationalist suggested the official was guilty of “atoning” for earlier.
Laois actually ended the day a man short themselves with David Sweeney sent walking for a foul on Glenn Ryan who was one of Kildare’s many impressive performers in a low-scoring pig of a game that finished 1-11 to 1-7.
Only two of the winners’ scores came from play, Ryan converting a penalty Lynch would normally take, but aesthetics paled in comparison to the worth of a win that would come to be seen as the unlikely emergence of something special from a rivalry that been ordinary for so long.
Laois and Kildare had rarely amounted to much, whether collectively or on their own. Bordered by neighbours of greater note - Offaly, Kilkenny, Meath and Dublin - their jousts had all too often been tiny pebbles cast and lost in the great championship swell. By ‘97, Kildare had known 41 years without a provincial title. Laois could add a decade to that.
Now and again, one or other would make a dash for the light. Laois reached Leinster finals in 1981, ‘85 and ‘91 and even claimed a National League title in ‘86. Kildare lost a pair of deciders to the Dubs in ‘92 and ‘93. Nearly men.
So when ‘97 swung around it created little of interest outside the footballing heartlands of the two jurisdictions where clubs like Grange, Athy and Castlemitchell and St Joseph’s, Ballylinan and Stradbally stood sentinel along the shared border.
The Tegral plant in Athy, populated by both tribes, was another focal point. The desperation to leave a mark on the wider GAA landscape was summed up in the aftermath of the game two decades ago when a Laois official addressed the winners: “For Jaysus sake, lads, for us all, don’t just stop at beating Leix. Go on and beat Dublin or Meath.” Kildare would do just that. But not immediately. Meath scraped past them into that year’s provincial final after a three-game epic that took a month to settle but O’Dwyer’s men would beat Dublin, Laois and the Royals on the way to the title the following year.
By the end of that long summer, 11 of the men who started the ‘97 defeat of Laois would line up against Galway for an All-Ireland final and Turley, a long-time Kildare resident, never tires of telling the likes of Dalton and Ryan that it was Laois who launched that odyssey.
And Ryan agrees.
“Most fellas in Kildare would say that Laois game was the start of it for that team. That and the games against Meath. PJ Whelan was a great man in the supporters club and he always said Kildare could get one good result but that doing it back-to-back was our problem.
“In ‘97 we had that great performance against Laois with the 13 men and we followed it up with the three games against Meath who were All-Ireland champions at the time. We hadn’t done that before and it gave us a huge amount of belief going into 1998.” Laois were that bit further back the road but their time was coming, too. A good half of the team that played in ‘97 would feature to some degree in the provincial run that ended with them shading the Lilywhites in a Leinster decider at a packed HQ in 2003.
Both counties flirted with the idea of success for another decade or so after that day but the ambitions as they meet in Tullamore tomorrow are more modest, particularly so for Laois who will spend next spring in the graveyard that is Division Four.
Turley talks over and back on the team’s merits as he dissects this latest meeting before landing on the likelihood of a Kildare win. Likewise Ryan. Whatever the train of events, both counties could do with planting the seeds for bigger and brighter days to come.
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