Beating Laois the height of Wicklow’s ambitions
Winners of their Leinster SFC first round tie will meet Dublin
Wicklow manager Harry Murphy and goalkeeper John Flynn after last June’s defeat to Meath in the Leinster quarter-final in Aughrim, Co Wicklow. Photograph: Inpho
“It’s frightening, isn’t it?” says Harry Murphy – a strange way of describing the prize that awaits his Wicklow team if they beat Laois on Sunday. “But sure we live on hope.”
So begins another championship for one of the last two counties never to win a provincial football title (Fermanagh being the other): for Wicklow, there is hope of getting out of the first round, given they’re at home in Aughrim on Sunday, but with Dublin awaiting the winners on Croke Park on June 8th, there’s little hope of Wicklow going any further, only through the qualifiers.
Focus on Laois
“We’re happy enough to focus on Laois for the moment,” says Murphy, in his third season as Wicklow manager. “But you wouldn’t be very happy if you were focusing on Dublin. You’d have a few sleepless nights, alright, but at the end of the day, who doesn’t want to be playing Dublin in Croke Park?
“For a lot of our lads, it would be the pinnacle of their careers. Now they mightn’t think like that after the game, but of course our lads still want to get that chance.
“It’s a big prize, and I’m sure the Laois lads are thinking exactly the same. Of course there is the back door, but no footballer or manager is thinking about the back door right now. The very least you want is to win the first round. At least then you’ve achieved something.”
There is, suggests Murphy, a bigger issue: Wicklow can only do the best they can, but if the Leinster football championship is to become a level playing field again something will have to change. The gentle irony here is Wicklow is one of Dublin’s neighbouring counties, and possibly should benefit from a spillover of some of their players, but instead feel further away than ever when it comes to actually competing.
“The talent Jim Gavin has available is frightening, even if you look at their under-21 team. Some of those players would walk on to any other senior team in Leinster, and that’s not being disrespectful to my players, or the players from any other county from the province.
“It’s not Dublin’s fault. But they’ve a few lads with Wicklow heritage. Like Nicky Devereux, his father is an Avoca man. And Eoghan O’Gara, his grandfather would have been from Ashford. These are just some examples.
“Maybe Wicklow might have courted them, who knows, but of course those players would look to Dublin first, and then Meath. Again, that’s not being disrespectful to my own lads. They give it everything they have.
“But the GAA fraternity in Wicklow is not huge. There’s a lot of soccer in Wicklow. A bit of rugby, too. And one of the biggest problems in Wicklow is we don’t have any great feeder college. Like say St Pat’s, in Navan. Or St Kieran’s, in Kilkenny, for hurling.
“Wicklow are trying to raise standards. They have a new centre of excellence down there, in Ballinakill. A lovely set up. Five pitches, a gym, floodlights. And we’re trying to get more into the development squads. So it has started, and we will see the benefits of that, eventually.”
In the meantime there is the suggestion Leinster needs to distribute its resources in a different way, to favour counties like Wicklow, or indeed redistribute its borders, under the new championship structures suggested by the Football Review Committee.
“Look at the sponsorship Dublin has. Wicklow will never have that. That’s not Dublin’s fault. They have 100,000 people wearing their jerseys, so good luck to them. But I genuinely don’t know how some of us will ever catch up. You can’t tell Dublin to stop training, and give us some chance.
“Maybe there is some room to distribute resources differently, and instead of giving something to Dublin, give it to the rest of us. But only if the counties have something to spend that on, because it can’t be thrown away, either.
“There is also the proposal of playing groups of eight, and switching some teams around. I don’t know if it would help us. It would help club football, I think, and it might be easier for Wicklow to keep players with clubs.
“But for us, realistically, as we can do is keep our side going as best we can. Because I just don’t know how you stop Dublin. They have raised the bar. They won’t be coming back down to our level. We’re looking up there. But realistically, the likes of Wicklow will never get up there.
“So maybe Croke Park does have to look at things again. If they saying it’s an amateur game, maybe they need to ensure teams only train amateur hours. That might level it up a little bit. Our lads don’t do the early morning sessions, because for many of them that’s just not possible, because of where they live, or work. All I know is they train as hard as they can.”
As for Sunday, Wicklow can be a little more hopeful: Laois may have played two league divisions about them, surviving in Division Two, while Wicklow just missed on promotion from Division Four – but there is that Aughrim advantage, not that Murphy is relying on that.
“It’s not as if Laois are travelling savage mileage, either. Still, we finished our league campaign quite well, just didn’t get over the line. But all that means nothing for a championship game. That’s a different ball game completely.”