Current captain Kieran Lillis recently found himself looking back over the list of men who had led ‘The Town’ to their 31 previous county football titles and the defender duly added his name to that roll call when the club claimed its 32nd after defeating Emo in a replay a fortnight ago. It was the club’s ninth straight senior title and yet the talk in the immediate aftermath was not of business seen to, but rather of that to come. With Carlow’s Palatine awaiting them the very next day, the need to refocus was more acute than normal.
Yet, it is what they have always done.
Lillis’s father, Mick, knows that as well as anyone. Mick Lillis managed Portlaoise to three of those nine titles and was a member of the team that claimed their only All-Ireland title in 1983. Manager of Palatine last Sunday week, he reflected on what comes next for his son and former charges.
“Portlaoise are a great team and I think they are coming good at the right time,” the next Laois boss told Midlands 103. “They have a huge hurdle against Newbridge Sarsfields but, look, this is their terrain. They love the Leinster and I think they are going to go forward and do well.”
No-one has matched Portlaoise’s seven provincial football titles in Leinster, but it is impossible to escape the suspicion that they have not profited as they could have beyond the county borders in the years since their current hegemony in Laois was first asserted in 2007. Their one provincial crown in that period was claimed in 2009 when they saw off Westmeath’s Garrycastle in the final while Ballymun Kickhams and St Vincent’s were both three points better than them in the deciders in 2012 and a year later. The defeat of Vincent’s by Ballyboden St Enda’s in the Dublin decider last week highlights yet again the strength in depth in the Dublin championship. Mick Lillis reflected on that 24 months ago when his Portlaoise side were bracing for their meeting with Ballymun. While noting the financial resources pumped into the game in the capital, he added the equally salient fact that the work being done on the ground was unparalleled.
It has made for a frightening cocktail at inter-county level where Dublin are now miles ahead of the rest of the sides in their region and, with six of the last eight Leinster titles to their credit, the Pale’s hold on the club game is almost as encompassing. Portlaoise remain one of the main bulwarks to that dominance. Yet, in a way, it is surprising that they should find themselves here at all tomorrow. Reports of their demise were emanating from Laois even three or four years ago, but they have managed to maintain their standards despite a large turnover of players and coaches.
Only five of the 20 players who helped account for Stradbally in the ’07 decider were still plugging away when Emo were defeated two weeks ago. Among them was Carlton’s Zach Tuohy who has been a regular contributor at this time of the year prior to the new AFL season.
Tuohy’s intermittent presence doesn’t sit well with everyone, but his commitment is unquestioned. He sat out the Palatine victory, but the grapevine suggests that he will likely play his part for Portlaoise this weekend.