Bloodied but unbowed Portlaoise aiming to extend their record provincial haul
Despite tragedy, financial debt and a sense of unfulfilled potential, Laois standard-bearers come back for more
Portlaoise players celebrate their victory over Moorefield in the Leinster club football championship semi-final at O’Moore Park, Portlaoise. Photograph: Lorraine O’Sullivan/Inpho
Such is their range of motivations, Portlaoise will need to find a very good reason to lose Sunday’s Leinster club football final. That reason may well be the performance of their Dublin opponents St Vincent’s – but the Laois champions won’t surrender their claim easily.
Family bereavement, massive debt, serious illness and a desperate sense of unfulfilled potential form only part of the backdrop as Sunday’s game in Tullamore also sees certain stars happily realigning.
It’s now 30 years since Portlaoise won its first and only All-Ireland club title, and coincidentally or not, they’re now co-managed by two members of that team, Mick Lillis and Mark Kavanagh.
There’s also an element of destiny about their progress to Sunday’s final. They may have won seven Laois football titles in succession, but that exceptional record is somewhat marred by the fact they only won a single Leinster title on the back of that run – in 2009.
The desire to improve on that record was demonstrated in both their quarter-final (coming from eight points down to beat Longford Slashers, in extra time) and their semi-final (again coming from behind to beat Kildare champions Moorefield).
That quarter-final, however, was postponed a week due to the sudden death of Gretta Kelly, mother of forward Adrian Kelly – who still appeared as a substitute in the rescheduled game and kicked one of the decisive points. Kelly also came on in the semi-final win over Moorefield a week later.
“That was a tough run for everyone in the club,” says Portlaoise secretary Pat Leogue. “I think everyone is conscious now of making the most of this final, especially after being beaten in last year’s final, by Ballymun, when certainly the feeling was perhaps they left it behind them. And being 30 years on from our only All-Ireland title is also a motivating factor.”
It’s almost five years now since Portlaoise hit the headlines for the wrong reasons, when in January 2009, the proposed €19 million sale of their 17.2 acre site next to O’Moore Park fell through, on the back of refused planning permission for the potential purchasers.
They weren’t the only club to be burned by the economic collapse, but the club had already been advanced €6.5 million which was put towards purchase of a 39-acre club site at Rathleague. That, effectively, left them €6.5 million in debt.
“It’s still an ongoing situation for the club,” explains Leogue, “and certainly hasn’t been fully resolved yet. The club is starting out again, I suppose, in our new grounds in Rathleague, and over the last 18 months or so everything has been moved out there. The old ground is being rented out by Laois GAA for the last 12 months, to train county teams.
“So of course it’s an ongoing burden on the club, and we would hope to see it resolved soon enough. But it also just proves how strong the club is that it hasn’t deterred us from winning on the field . . . . People didn’t take their eye off the ball.
“Certainly the last five years have been very trying on some of the club officers. It’s my first year as secretary . . . but I know a lot of people have just got on with the work that needs to be done.”
In the meantime one of the club’s longest serving mentors, John Mulligan, who managed to the team to their last Leinster club title in 2009, was this summer diagnosed with a serious illness, and is still undergoing treatment. There is also the enduring memory of the loss to suicide, three years ago, of one of their best young players Peter McNulty.
Yet Portlaoise has always proudly and justifiably declared itself the most successful football club in Leinster, with a record seven provincial titles (’71, ’76, ’82, ’85, ’87, ’04, ’09). But if there was an ideal time to win one more this might be it.
“I do think this is also a very special group of players,” says Leogue. “They’ve done very well, but are still very strongly motivated to take it a stage further. A Leinster title would be nothing more than they deserve as a group. They way they came back against Longford Slashers, and then their performance against Moorefield, showed that spirit. They’ve had a little bit of a break now, and just looking forward to Sunday. Of course St Vincent’s also have a very strong tradition, play good football, and would be just like ourselves in that regard.
“We also won the county under-21 title, last Saturday night, a further sign that we’ve got players coming through. There is a strong underage structure, and if we can get over the immediate financial difficulties, we do have tremendous facilities where we are, in Rathleague, with six floodlight pitches, a gym, and hurling wall, and all that. Those pitches are busy every night of the week and that’s exciting to see going forward.”