Fergal Byron was a grown man of 21, and on the brink of a 10-year senior football career that would earn him a Leinster medal and an All-Star, when Laois first served notice of an upturn in fortunes with an All-Ireland minor title in 1996.
By the time the Courtwood keeper retired in 2007, the midland county had collected a treasure trove of silverware: Six minor and three U21 provincial successes, a hat-trick of minor All-Irelands and that senior provincial breakthrough under Micko in 2003.
That they could, and unquestionably should, have taken away even more only adds weight to the merit of the foundation work carried out in the early to mid-90s by visionaries such as Sean Dempsey, Oliver Phelan, and Gabriel Lawlor.
“What the likes of those lads did was revolutionary in their own time,” said Byron. “They were doing more than anyone else. The players were meeting more frequently and they were working on their skills from an earlier age. Everyone does that now.
“For a county like Laois to have won minor All-Irelands was unheard of but you can’t compare what happened at underage levels 25 years ago to what happens now. Even comparing the present day to 10 years ago is like night and day.
“Volunteerism is still key to everything that happens. That hasn’t changed but there is an element of, if you like, professionalism to it now that wasn’t there then with GDAs (Games Development Officers) going in to clubs and schools.”
Byron should know.
Voted in last December as the county board’s coaching officer, he sees what is happening and what isn’t around the county in both codes. Much has changed since the 90s but some remain the same.
Laois is still a small county and the breakthrough just over 20 years ago stemmed from a combination of factors. The most basic among them was the fact they were blessed with a brilliant crop of enough players at the one time.
“You won’t always get that sort of crop so you have to work twice as hard then. You need to dig right down and get into the nurseries at the clubs, juvenile, and underage levels and into the schools and all the way up to the U20s. And all that has to be joined up.”
Development squads are commonplace around the country and, while that’s great to see, the fact is that they are the last piece in the jigsaw after the box has been emptied and the thousand other parts sifted through and put in place.
As anyone involved in any sport should know, the vast majority of work in moulding players is done by the time they hit their teens.
Team success at these grades isn’t everything.
Carlow, who face Laois in Sunday’s Leinster senior semi-final at Croke Park, are proof of that. But, that said, results and trophies at underage levels is still as good a reason as any to feel good about the future.
Laois are only a few years into their bid to develop a coherent approach to underage coaching and development among their clubs, schools and county squads but Byron is already seeing signs of buy-in and of a corner being turned.
His own club Courtwood is part of an amalgamation with Emo and The Rock that dug the same foundations a dozen years ago and they have been rewarded with county titles from U12 through to minor.
He can point to that as proof that this stuff works.
Even if it’s no quick fix.
It could be 10 years before the current project matures but the presence of John Sugrue’s side in the senior semi this weekend, and back in the third league tier in 2019, gives the county something to cling to in the short-term while the medium looks promising too.
Last year’s U17s were pipped at the post by Dublin and the hope is that they can muscle into the contest for provincial U20s honours the next two seasons while the U15s and U17s are attracting some approving nods of their own.
Byron’s son Matthew is goalkeeper with the Laois U20s this season and, as was the case with his dad at that age, he is part of a generation looking back over their shoulders in the hope that they can catch a great wave to come.
How his dad would love for that history to repeat itself.
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