Dedicated Plunkett had overseen a big improvement in Laois’s fortunes

Maintaining steady progress in second-tier counties never an easy task

The announcement

yesterday morning of Séamus Plunkett’s abrupt departure as Laois hurling manager was a reminder of the difficulties faced by those in charge of trying to sustain improvements in emerging counties.

During his nearly three years in charge the Portlaoise man had registered clear improvement but maintaining the upward trajectory was always going to be difficult even if that challenge was not specifically connected to his decision to go.

In the past a number of counties have made at times spectacular progress only to hit hurling’s glass ceiling, which seems to be lowered on any county trying to establish a foothold in the upper reaches of the game.

In the past 20 years or so counties such as Kerry, Meath and Derry have made significant championship breakthroughs as well as playing at the top level of the league but all eventually relapsed.

Kerry’s was probably the most spectacular, winning a ground-breaking championship match against Waterford, who had won the previous year’s under-21 All-Ireland. This was the county’s first win in the Munster at senior level in over 67 years, since defeating Clare in April 1926.

They also reached Division One of the NHL where they defeated the All-Ireland champions Clare in the first match of the 1995-96 league season. Relegation followed though a year later and the championship victory of 22 years ago remains unaccompanied in the meantime.

Maurice Leahy has vast experience as a development coach in the county and was one of the selectors with the 1993 team.

Eight clubs

He points out Kerry are on the move again having won Ring Cups and last month becoming the first county to win their way out of Division Two A under the current structure – by beating Antrim in a play-off.

“I think we’re always punching above our weight. The big problem here is that we have only eight clubs playing hurling, all in north Kerry. That’s it. They’re rural clubs as well so there’s not a big population there. I’d say the population of Tralee is probably double or treble theirs combined.”

“We produce good hurlers,” says Leahy. “Shane Brick’s down in Cork and Darragh O’Connell’s been called into the Dublin panel but we can’t produce enough to stay at the top level.”

Tradition plays a role as well as certain counties have always been better and expect to win. Constant battling can wear down emerging teams.

In 2000 Derry won an Ulster senior title for the first time in 92 years, defeating Antrim by a point in the final. Their manager was from Antrim – Kevin McNaughton of the famous clan from Cushendall – and led them to another title a year later. They also reached the top division in the league where they stayed until 2004.

“You can’t keep it there on a sustained basis,” he says. “Trying your best all the time and picking up some heavy defeats does eventually erode confidence. Club hurling has to be very strong and although I think there’s actually more senior clubs in Derry now there weren’t many then. You need strength in depth. . .”

Derry lost by just six points to Offaly in the 2000 All-Ireland quarter final –a team that would eliminate All-Ireland champions Cork in the semi-finals.

More exposure

“There’s always good hurlers playing for the footballers,” says McNaughton. “You can’t compete with that. It’s not so much the success but the there’s more exposure and everything comes with playing football.”

It’s a view that Leahy in Kerry echoes. “Even this year three of the best Kerry minor hurlers are on the football panel. They can get to Croke Park with the footballers and you wouldn’t want to stand in their way.