Laois face daunting tie against champions

Once Dublin’s bogey team at underage, Laois haven’t been able to develop at the same rate

Laois’s John O’Loughlin who played on the minor side that defeated Dublin 2-12 to 1-3 in 2007. Photograph: Inpho

Laois’s John O’Loughlin who played on the minor side that defeated Dublin 2-12 to 1-3 in 2007. Photograph: Inpho

Sat, Jun 7, 2014, 02:00

It’s only seven years ago and yet today it feels like the sort of scoreline you’d only find going through dusty almanacs with a magnifying glass – Laois 2-12 Dublin 1-3 in the Leinster minor championship. It was May 2007 and a Dublin defence with Rory O’Carroll and Jonny Cooper in it got blown to smithereens.

A story from another age.

It was a replay on a Wednesday night, four days after the sides had played out a 1-13 to 0-16 draw in Parnell Park. Dublin even took an early lead and were 1-2 to 0-3 ahead after 20 minutes. But from there to the end of the hour, a Laois side packed with names that would sustain from that day on just blasted through them.

Donie Kingston ended the evening with six points, Conor Meredith and John O’Loughlin with one apiece. Kieran Lillis and Robbie Kehoe held court in defence and future AFL stalwart Zach Tuohy got forward repeatedly from wing back. They outscored Dublin 2-9 to 0-1 in the final 40 minutes.

“We knew all along that that was a very good year,” says Eddie Kelly, Laois manager at the time. “A lot of them went on to play senior later on. Counties like Laois get a good bunch of players every so often and that’s what they were. The 2003 team won the All Ireland and the 2007 team were unlucky not to do the same. We were beaten by Derry in a replay in the semi-final, a Derry team should have won the All Ireland itself.

“We had a big team, big lads for their age. They had that size, apart from having the ability. There was no problem playing Dublin at all. The first game was a good game, in Parnell Park. But they had to travel down to play us on the Wednesday night. I think maybe that had a bearing on it because we won it easily.”

Imagine. A Dublin underage side, beaten easily.

In the six-and-a-bit seasons since, Dublin have played 25 games at minor level in Leinster, with a record of 18 wins, four defeats and three draws. Their average winning margin has been a smidge over 10 points and they’ve gathered up three of the last five titles.

The handy shorthand when people talk about Dublin’s hegemony is the sheer weight of numbers at Jim Gavin’s disposal. Not just now, but coming up behind as well. Such is the strength of the Dublin machine at underage level – they have four of the last six Leinster Under-21 titles as well – that it’s difficult to imagine the province without them all-powerful at the top of it.

Their freehold status on the throne has reduced the likes of Laois to peasants scrabbling in the dirt for morsels. Much apart from the scoreline, that hammering in 2007 is notable for being the last time a Laois team beat Dublin at any level. A full generation of players who don’t know what it’s like to beat that shower from the city.

No fear

Yet that isn’t the case for all of them. Of the Laois team that lines out tomorrow, Meredith, O’Loughlin, Kingston and Kehoe all played and won in 2007. Colm Begley, Mark Timmons and David Conway were on the minor team that beat a Dublin side containing Paul Flynn, Michael Darragh Macauley and Diarmuid Connolly in 2005. Begley and Peter O’Leary were on the team that won the 2003 minor All Ireland, beating Dublin in the final after a replay.

Those were the times for Laois, especially at minor level and especially against Dublin. Between 2002 and 2007, Laois played Dublin seven times in the minor championship and only lost once, with four wins and two draws. When people spoke of Laois having no fear of Dublin, this was the main context in which it was actually the case.

Everything is different now. Laois were Leinster champions at minor and Under-21 in 2007 but they haven’t been back to a final in either grade since. Dublin are an ocean off in the distance, far beyond the horizon. Nobody from Laois is going to Croke Park tomorrow with anything approaching hope – an unthinkable state of affairs only a few seasons ago.

“It’ll be very tough,” says Kelly, putting the best face he can on it. “Dublin have so many options and Laois have lost a few over the years. Laois can’t afford to lose someone like Zach Tuohy to Australia or even the couple of injuries we’ve had along the way. We just wouldn’t have the replacements to compete with them.”

Fatalism, realism, it hardly matters – nobody gives them much of a chance at all. And though it isn’t actually all that long since people did, it feels a lifetime ago. An indication of the distance Dublin have put between themselves and the rest in such a short amount of time.

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