Laois hurlers maturing under Cheddar
Séamus Plunkett, the man with the unusual nickname and Motorhead moustache, has certainly struck a chord with his players
Laois hurling manager Séamus Plunkett addresses his players. The team have been making progress under their coach and tomorrow entertain All-Ireland champions Clare in the National Hurling League quarter-finals. Photograph: Morgan Treacy/Inpho
“You would probably need to ask an outside person,” says Séamus “Cheddar” Plunkett on what it means to come from Laois.
Ask most outsiders what they think about when they think about Laois and Electric Picnic or Morrissey’s pub in Abbeyleix or Castle Durrow or Slieve Bloom may come to mind, or the place may simply fall under the curse which plagues the midlands: it is a county to be passed through on the motorway network to Dublin.
When Laois GAA teams have created a stir in recent years, it has generally been through football, from the series of exciting minor teams who won All-Irelands to the senior team Mick O’Dwyer cajoled towards the threshold of greatness. Laois hurling, however, seldom prods the national imagination and that is why tomorrow’s league quarter-final, with the All-Ireland champions visiting Portlaoise for a match of significance, is a date worth marking.
“I like to think we have our own identity,” says Plunkett, a reluctant nominee for the man who has led the Laois hurling revival. “We are very proud of our history and we are a rural county, mostly . . . but other than that, it is difficult for me to define. In a general way, I wouldn’t think Laois people are any more or less confident than people in any other county.”
The Middle-earth of hurling
Identity and county affiliation is the magic that sustains the GAA and broadly defines Ireland. Within the hurling tradition, Laois’s south and west fronts are hemmed in by Kilkenny and Tipperary, the Middle earth of hurling lore, and the county has occupied a strange and singular role down the decades, sometimes struggling to survive murky winter campaigns with the band of second-tier counties but occasionally flourishing to trouble and actually beat those ascendancy counties who dominate the All-Ireland hurling roll of honour.
Séamus Plunkett’s mother is from Inistioge: it didn’t take long to absorb the emphasis on hurling on family visits to Kilkenny. His father is a Macroom man. “There would have been plenty of discussions about Ring and Barry around the dinner table.”
But he is Laois through and through: a “towny” from Portlaoise who is known universally as Cheddar because a friend rechristened him in first class. “I think only my mother calls me Séamus at this stage.”
The town is, as he puts it “at the epicentre” of the geographical GAA divide in Laois, where the northern fraternity play football and those south of the town are more interested in hurling. In Portlaoise, you had a choice. Plunkett gravitated towards hurling and even after he became aware his county was bordered by fortresses of the game, he never felt anything like envy.
“See, you don’t really think like that. When you’re young and growing up . . . I am sure any Laois minor now doesn’t see that his chances are diminished because he is from Laois. A lot of our reference points were in club hurling, which was strong in the county.
“So yeah, we are surrounded by Tipp and Kilkenny who have had massive success down the years but you certainly don’t look across the border and think: ‘wouldn’t it be great if I was from there? I actually don’t want to be from there?’ I know where I am from! I didn’t want to play with anyone else as a Laois man. I wanted to play with my own county and I think that is true of all Laois people.
“And I am sure if you asked Mount Leinster players if they would like to hop over the border and play with Kilkenny you would get a quick response. This is where I was born and I was always very proud of where I came from.”
There was an accidental element to his appointment as Laois manager. He took on the role after an original assignment to head-hunt someone to lead the senior hurling team out of a particularly dark period and it turned out all clues led to himself.
It is hard to imagine a better fit. The jaunty nickname and Motorhead moustache are suggestive of a cavalier spirit. Simply seeing him walk across the carpeted floor of the tea room in Wynn’s Hotel confirms him as being of the generation of 1970s teenagers who grew up spellbound by guitar gods. But he brings to hurling management the organisation and strategic thinking which applies to his business life.
Like many Midlanders, Plunkett belongs to the army of commuters, catching a dawn train which transports him to the heart of Dublin city.
The six am starts can be jading. But they mean he gets to live in Laois and stay close to the hurling scene there.
Plunkett winces slightly and then politely rejects the suggestion that the 10-20 which Laois shipped in the 2011 All-Ireland qualifier against Cork was a low watermark. “Hurling is a dynamic game,” he points out. “When a team gets a run, scores like that can happen. Look at this year’s league.”
He had been involved with the Laois minors and was well versed in the club scene. When he accepted the job just before Christmas 2012, he believed the framework for the hurling side needed to be reinforced.
“This applies to any walk of life: if you don’t have structure and a pretty clear vision of what you want to do and pretty good processes to put that in place, then you are not going to get a group of people to believe in that project.
“When players can see that, it gives them something to build on. I am not saying they were not in place prior to my time . . . I simply don’t have a comment on that. But if you were to ask the players, I do think they would say that they feel that there is enough to convince them to drive on in terms of their individual careers.
Outside the box
“All counties are doing the same thing and are working hard even though the chance of real success – of winning tangible things – is very low. Then you have to factor the confidence and success of counties like Kilkenny and Clare, so we have to think outside the box. And that’s a big challenge to us because some of the foundations blocks that are in place elsewhere aren’t there in counties like Laois and comparable counties. I reflect on where are now and we have just taken a step or two up the ladder.”
They have been here before. Plunkett can quickly relocate himself to the period when he featured on a promising Laois senior team which featured in the 1984 Centenary Cup final against Cork after beating Limerick, Galway Tipperary. They lost that match in Croke Park by 2-21 and 1-9.
“It was a tough day for it but there was no question that the occasion of being in a national final attributed to that.”
They were back in Croke Park for the 1985 Leinster final: it was just karma they happened to meet an Offaly team which would go unbeaten all summer. They always knew they were capable of breathing the rare air but consistency was elusive: Laois went through nine years of the 1990s without recording a championship win yet still managed to pop up in the league semi-final of 1995, when Tipperary shaded that match by just two points.
Introducing a more measured climate has been a key priority for Plunkett. Last year’s Leinster championship performance against Galway was a significant step and their form has been eye-catching in this league, with last Sunday’s half-time score against Limerick, whom they led by 1-9 to 0-5, a measure of their potential.
“There were a number of days like that, yeah. But I would look at it differently. I knew there was great potential in this team. The question was: have these players the ability to work to a structure and plan and method and apply that to a competitive structure? And they have shown that.
“What has enthused me even more is that I was involved with the Laois minors and I can see what is coming through under Critch (Pat Critchley) . . . so that is exciting. The seniors are key to the thing now. This group is hugely dedicated to Laois hurling and the younger players can see that.”
Plunkett has been friends with Critchley, Laois’s first hurling All-Star in 1985, since they were boys. “My mam would have said that he was like one of her sons at various times down the years.”
They were wired into hurling and music: when pressed, Plunkett concedes he did indeed act as manager for Mere Mortals, the midlands band who formed part of the gloriously eclectic spectrum of independent Irish rock bands which flourished through the 1980s and 1990s. His brother Ollie played guitar, Critchley drums.
“I would say dabbled is a very strong word for what we did,” Plunkett laughs. “Had a good time would capture that period a little bit better.”
But they were accomplished enough to play TV gigs and play Féile and hold the distinction of having one of the best summary lines ever attributed in the Irishrock.org glossary: ‘They were quite an athletic band by all accounts, with individual members’ sporting engagements often conflicting with touring schedules and other band commitments.”
Like most bands, Mere Mortals bowed out with no regrets and regroup from time to time. Hurling, though has remained a constant for Plunkett and Critchley. And anyhow, running a band and a hurling team aren’t so wildly different: the ultimate ambition is to stage a synchronised performance which exceeds best previous attempts and, perhaps, thrills and surprises the public. The Laois hurling team tries to do that every time out now.
Plunkett has assembled a formidable backroom team: Paul Cuddy and Damien Culliton are selectors. Brendan Cummins, the retired Tipperary All-Star is goalkeeping coach. Ger Cunningham is technical coach. Pat Flanagan has come in for conditioning. The attention to detail is there.
So hosting Clare tomorrow is a small, significant measure of where they are. They don’t want praise for being there: they just want to play against the best as honestly as they can and see where it takes them. Plunkett laughs when asked if he could see himself doing this as long as a certain neighbouring manager.
“Oh gosh, I wouldn’t for a second to put myself in the same sentence as Brian Cody,” he says as he prepares to melt back into the crowd on Middle Abbey Street, a world away from O’Moore County hurling.
“It’s just a year on year thing and it is extremely demanding and hugely enjoyable. You go into these jobs with your eyes wide open. If you have ambitions, you know it is going to take time and effort.
“So there was no surprise. And it’s an honour to be involved with your own county, particularly with this group of players. I will serve Laois hurling as much as I can.”