Malachy McNulty won’t have any trouble finding his way to Parnell Park this Sunday. For several years, the Portlaoise man made a daily round trip to the capital when working as a teacher in Glasnevin. It was a time that gave him good friendships and a ringside seat at Dublin club championship games.
He maintained that habit even after he became principal of St Francis’s Special School in Portlaoise, both out of interest and, because as manager of the town’s GAA team, you can’t see enough games. The Dublin matches he attended this year clarified the exuberant health of the sport in the metropolis.
“There is a physicality and intensity about their teams across the board. In Laois you might get four or five really well-conditioned teams, if you like, and the others might be catching up a little bit. They all seem to be extremely conditioned and athletic and well able to run hard for 60 or 70 minutes up there. The games are tough. And that toughness stands to teams coming out of their county.”
None of these observations are designed to underplay Portlaoise’s qualities when they face Dublin champions Kilmacud Crokes on Sunday. McNulty’s entire adult life in Gaelic football has revolved around varying degrees of success with the club. He made it to the senior team aged just 18, describing himself as a full-hearted and attentive half-back: “Maybe not a player with the silkiest of skills but I’d do the hard work.”
It was a period when Portlaoise dominated the local landscape. From 2007-2015, they won nine senior Laois titles in succession. Sometimes they steamrolled the opposition in finals but those seasons were never effortless: they were informed by serious ambition. The peculiar thing was that as the titles racked up, so did the pressure.
Imagining new ways to meet the same challenge became more difficult. After 2014, the senior team needed a new manager. McNulty was one of the senior players involved in identifying suitable replacements. They heard the phrase “train hard and often” more than once. That often translated to three or four training sessions a week – and the expenses that went with those sessions. Gradually, it began to dawn on people within the club that they needed someone familiar with their values.
McNulty was 33 then and enjoying the player’s life. He trained teams at juvenile level but when he was approached to take on the senior team, it came completely from left field. It was a dilemma. He felt he could do something. The team was steaming towards something special: even if it wasn’t voiced, it was obvious they were closing in on 10 titles in a row. But the consequence of taking the job was that McNulty wouldn’t be on the field if that moment arrived.
“If it was all about me, I’d be still playing,” he confesses. “I’m 36 and the body is fresh as hell because I haven’t put it under too much stress . . . I’ve been too busy with work and with managing the team and all of that. There is no better feeling coming off the pitch . . . it is a fabulous feeling.
“First of all, I didn’t go looking to manage. We were at a point where we had completed eight in a row. And to an extent, it had become a poisoned chalice: who would want to be manager when it stops? My motivation has always been that I believe that this team and the tradition in the club mean we have what it takes to compete at the top level. The dream is to bring this team all the way. So my name came up and it was brought to me. I took a step back and I thought, yeah. This is probably the right choice and time.”
It required an instant resetting of his habits and values: a necessary distance between the guys who had been his team-mates and friends and the imposition of his vision and belief of how the team should play. In his first season, he leaned on senior players who were thinking of stepping away, prevailing on them to hang about and they secured a ninth title almost on muscle memory.
But in his second year, in the county final against Stradbally, the inconstant and ungovernable heart of sport decided things. Sixty-two minutes gone and 1-10 to 1-12 ahead, Portlaoise were all but home as Stradbally worked their way up the pitch with nine handpasses, each of which seemed millimetres away from an interception. A more cynical team would have fouled and set themselves. Portlaoise kept trying to win the ball cleanly until all of a sudden it was squared to Jody Dillon who thumped a once-in-a-lifetime goal past Graeme Brody. It provoked pandemonium around the county.
“Ironically I happened to be that man who was there when it came to an end,” McNulty says. “Ten in a row . . . it’s a feat that I think isn’t achieved very often. It didn’t force our hand but it did create a sense that we had to step back and reflect on where we wanted to go for the next five or 10 years.”
The Portlaoise response has been to win two titles. The club game is beginning to mirror the county scene in a more fluid turnover of players. McNulty feels that getting the team balance right is critical. A team has to have what he refers to as its “locomotive players”: the cohort in their prime. Each year, they try to have one or two players coming out of the juvenile set-up.
This year, Barry Saunders was the big success. They brought him into the senior squad last year as a red-shirt: they'd no intention of playing him but wanted him to get used to training and playing at adult level. He broke into the team on merit this season. At the other end of the spectrum, McNulty instances Ricky Maher, who scored Portlaoise's two goals in the senior final victory against O'Dempsey's and finished as man of the match. McNulty has a vivid recollection of Maher's first year with the team in 2009 when he was just 18. The team had been in murderous form in Leinster, crushing all comers on their way to the provincial title.
But for Maher, it never really happened. Through form and injury, he never fully nailed down a starting place. His application didn't always balance with his talent. This year, Bruno McCormack was injured and a gap opened in the full-forward line. Maher, as captain Paul Cahillane detailed after the final, "is 10 years trying to break into that team. He gets a sniff of it this year and changes his life totally off the field. I've never seen a man work as hard as he has this year." For McNulty, coaching Maher to reach that level is one of the consolations of no longer playing.
In order to win in Parnell Park, Portlaoise will have to deliver a special performance. McNulty has publicly embraced the idea of playing in Donnycarney. He is enthusiastic about the playing games at this time of year, irrespective of the sometimes wild conditions: one of his favourite days with the club was a Leinster derby game against Offaly champions Clara, a fixture originally abandoned because of fog and completed six days later during “the tail end of a hurricane”. It felt like they were the only people out of doors that day.
A cavalcade of buses will travel to Dublin. Portlaoise is a growing town: the club’s dominance has led to calls for the formation of a second club in the town. “We have one club,” McNulty says. “We are a very proud club and we don’t have the biggest support because there is such a big draw towards other sports in the town. But the supporters we do have are diehard and they are great when we are on the road – and we get great support from Laois in general.”