Evan O’Carroll and Laois aiming to maintain upward momentum

Justin McNulty’s side targeting a good Tailteann Cup campaign after winning Division Four of the Allianz Football League

It was after Laois’s away win over Fermanagh at Brewster Park last June that it all came flooding out for Billy Sheehan.

It had been a difficult few weeks – Laois were fortunate to draw with London in their final Tailteann Cup group game – and manager Sheehan fired back at critics in a post-match interview.

“Whatever about me being abused, I don’t care about that, but there was a county board meeting there two weeks ago where clubs literally said that the team were finished this year,” said Sheehan. “Then online, it’s just unfortunate the abuse that the players are receiving from people who don’t even come to the games.”

Sheehan concluded in a defiant tone. “Roll on the abuse in the next few days – we’ll be ready to go again next week.”


And they were. They beat Limerick. But that only bought Laois a ticket to the Tailteann Cup semi-finals at Croke Park where they ran into a red and black juggernaut. Down made mush of Laois that day, putting 8-16 on the scoreboard.

Sheehan left a couple of weeks later and, just like that, a most remarkable summer was over. Evan O’Carroll, the current Laois captain, needed a while afterwards to get his head around it all.

“It was difficult, probably the most difficult time I’ve had after an inter-county season,” said O’Carroll.

Things are beginning to look up again for Laois but there’s a distance to travel. They drew with Carlow in their Tailteann Cup opener last weekend, coughing up a six-point lead late on, and there are no guarantees they’ll overcome Wicklow this Sunday in Aughrim.

All of which is a world away from the Laois form of 2012 when they ran Dublin to within three points in an All-Ireland quarter-final. That winter Justin McNulty brought powerful teenager O’Carroll into the panel and handed him his championship debut in 2013. Laois were a solid Division 2 team at the time. This year they played in Division 4.

“We’re at the level we’re at, we put ourselves in that position,” said O’Carroll. “It’s just about trying now to get us back to where we need to be. It’s not whether we deserve to be here, it’s whether we can get ourselves where we want to be.”

O’Carroll, a secondary school Business and English teacher in Lucan, considered his situation over winter. Then McNulty, the former Armagh defender who brought him into the Laois panel a dozen years ago, was reappointed for a second term.

“There was a bit of a delay in the management being picked, or knowing who was going to get it,” said the powerful full-forward. “When Justin’s name was brought to my attention, there was never a second thought of going back in.

“I just think fair play to Justin for coming in again and to the county board for aligning with that. When you bring in someone of the calibre of Justin and that backroom team, it’s a massive opportunity for lads to develop as footballers firstly.

“So yeah, whenever I heard that Justin was back in line for the manager’s job, it created a bit of a buzz for me.

“Sometimes, going back in around November, December time, is the most difficult part because you know there’s a hard road in front of you but it has been one of my most enjoyable years with Laois so far. The plan that the boys have brought in has worked so far.”

The first mission, to get out of Division 4, was accomplished with relative ease. O’Carroll was terrific in the final, scoring six points against Leitrim at Croke Park, assisting two goals and generally causing mayhem under the high ball.

Between himself and the likes of Eoin Lowry, Mark Barry and Paul Kingston, they have a forward unit that’s capable of not just beating Wicklow this weekend but going deep into the tournament.

“It’s realistic, I think,” said O’Carroll of the prospect of potentially winning the tournament.

“You always hoped under the old format that you’d get some sort of a run in the qualifiers when you got there. We did that for a couple of years and there was a great buzz about that as well but when you got to the latter stages, you were always going in as underdogs.

“The Tailteann Cup is different, it’s achievable for all the teams that are competing. When you’re able to compete for a trophy, something you can genuinely win, it’s always positive.”

Getting out of their group, then returning to Croke Park. Those are the unspoken aims. Maybe they’ll even get another crack at Down.

“We’re building,” said O’Carroll. “I don’t think we’re there yet but we’re building on what we’ve done in the league and hopefully we can start putting in performances in the Tailteann Cup and finishing out games, which we didn’t seem to do last year.”