One small step by Brennan, one giant leap for Laois hurling
Niall Corcoran is being credited as the ‘insider’ who helped Laois take out Dublin
Laois selector Niall Corcoran and manager Eddie Brennan celebrate after the Joe McDonagh Cup final. Photograph: Gary Carr/Inpho
It was a slow day last October when Eddie Brennan confirmed the line-up of his Laois hurling management team, adding two ‘outsiders’ to his backroom for 2019: former Dublin hurler Niall Corcoran, plus Limerick strength and conditioning coach Dave Moriarty.
It hardly registered at the time, nor should it: Corcoran had no experience in senior hurling management, nor did he know much about Laois hurling, working as a Games Promotion Officer with south Dublin club Kilmacud Crokes, where he also played out his own club career having transferred from Galway, back in 2008.
Roll on nine months, and Corcoran is now being credited as the ‘insider’ who helped Laois take out Dublin in Sunday’s All-Ireland preliminary quarter-final - one of biggest championship upsets of the last decade. One small step by Brennan, one giant leap for Laois hurling.
Not that Brennan, the eight-time All-Ireland winner with Kilkenny, could ever have imagined it working out that way, nor indeed Corcoran.
In taking on the Laois management job, Brennan did want to think a little outside the box. Two of his selectors, Fran Dowling from Camross and former Laois forward Tommy Fitzgerald from Portlaoise, were very much insiders in their own county, and having met Corcoran in Dublin last September, the man who would have marked him occasionally during their own time, Brennan had no doubt he could bring something different.
An All-Ireland minor winner with Galway back in 2000, Corcoran’s move to the Dublin jersey in 2008 didn’t bring immediate success, and it wasn’t until 2011 that the defender won a league title, followed by the Leinster title in 2013 - a first for Dublin hurling since 1961.
He retired in 2016 after nine seasons, and remains close to several Dublin players given his role with Kilmacud Crokes, all of which made for naturally mixed feelings when Laois sealed that two-point win in Portlaoise on Sunday, setting their first All-Ireland quarter-final in 40 years, when they head to Croke Park to meet Tipperary next Sunday.
“It certainly wasn’t sure until the end, and I couldn’t believe it to be honest,” he said. “I would know the Dublin lads for a long time, played with some of them. They’re a hugely ambitious, a hugely talented group of players, and that game was never over until Alan Kelly blew the full-time whistle.
“It’s definitely for me mixed emotions. Heartbreak for the Dublin lads, because I know a lot of them and they’re brilliant guys. Complete elation for the Laois lads because they’ve earned it since last October, working so hard. And all looking forward to Croke Park again next week.”
Therein lies the prize and the challenge: whatever about a first All-Ireland quarter-final since 1979, Sunday is also regarded as possibly the biggest scalp for Laois since they beat Wexford to reach the 1985 Leinster final. They did beat Dublin during one of their lower periods, back in the Leinster quarter-final in 2005, but lost all five championship matches since by a combined 66 points.
Sunday’s game also came just seven days after Laois had beaten Westmeath to claim the Joe McDonagh Cup. “It was super, especially with the turnaround,” added Corcoran. “It was just pure ambition, pure hunger to win that game. Full credit goes to that group of players, number one to 33, the way they’ve applied themselves throughout the week to win the Joe McDonagh Cup, and to get their feet back on the ground. It’s days like this they deserve and they’ve earned and fair play to them.
“Our discipline was huge. Our contact into tackle, our work rate had to be huge with the plan we were playing, the work rate had to be high, especially up in the forwards. Charles Dwyer, Eanna Lyons, Willie Dunphy, Ross King, Aaron Dunphy, Mark Kavanagh and the lads that came up, just did a huge job in that. It’s work rate first and every one of them put the team first and that was important.”
Raising that sort of game for the third successive Sunday is easier said than done. Brennan made no secret of the fact he allowed his team a few drinks after the Joe McDonagh Cup win, and the same on Sunday evening after the Dublin win. That never concerned Corcoran, nor should it have any bearing this Sunday. Laois have waited too long to let games like this pass them by. They’ve never beaten Tipp in the championship.
“They had a few pints Sunday night and they had a few more Monday, there was a bit of black smoke at training Tuesday and Wednesday. I guess the question was posed to them was what was the group’s ambition? Is it the Joe McDonagh Cup, or do they want more for themselves?
“As a management group we saw the ability that they do have, huge hurling, they showed it, it was about the ambition and did they want to go a step further and I think they answered that there out on the pitch.
“Tipperary are another huge challenge. You’re looking at a squad who have huge confidence after this. We’ve a very young squad and why not give it a go. We’ll be underdogs again but why not give it a go?
“They showed that they can hurl their way out of trouble and hurling is what it’s all about and they thought their way out of trouble and that’s everything we’ve worked on since last October. These are the games you want.”