Portlaoise stuck in a long battle to make provincial matters count


The Laois men are still in search of that elusive second All-Ireland title, writes MALACHY CLERKIN

Don’t know they’re born, these kids today. When Portlaoise beat Ballymun in the 1982 Leinster final, five of their starting 15 were coming off the back of a league game for Laois the previous Sunday against Donegal. Better again, on the day they actually won, a couple of them got to see the cup being lifted and not a whole pile more.

The Leinster club final was the curtain-raiser in a double-header at Dr Cullen Park that afternoon, the bill-topper a hurling league clash between Laois and Carlow. No sooner had Pat Critchley and John Bohane done their club duty than they were handed hurleys and dragooned into action for the county. And we think there’s fixture congestion nowadays?

In Portlaoise, the past can’t but weigh no matter how hard they swear they don’t feel it. That team of Critchley, Bohane, Colm Browne and the rest remains the only one to lift an All-Ireland in the club’s history despite their habitual ascendancy in both the Laois and Leinster championship.

By a quirk of coincidence, they’ve won exactly the same number of county titles since the inception of the All-Ireland club championships – 21 out of 43 – as Crossmaglen have done in Armagh. And even their rate of conversion in Leinster – seven titles with a shot at an eighth tomorrow, as against 10 for Cross – stands up reasonably well. Yet they remain stuck on that single All-Ireland.

It’s not like they don’t get thrown a rope to grab onto. Year after year, they tumble out into the winter close to fully-formed. They’ve won the last six Laois titles on the spin and nine of the last 14. You never hear them complain about playing in heavy ground or fighting the harsh weather – this is just what they do after the clocks go back. They know the road and rarely find a bend that surprises them.

Yet a scan through their travelogue doesn’t do them many favours. Too many close games where they got going too late, too many days where their shooting left them holding their heads in their hands.

Last year against Dublin side St Brigid’s they had six goal chances and converted only one on their way to an extra-time defeat. The previous year, they managed just a single score in the second half against Kilmacud and only six in the whole game. Even when they were good enough to win Leinster the year before that, they were hamstrung in the All-Ireland semi-final against Kilmurray-Ibrickane, having a man sent-off after 40 seconds and ending the game with 13 men. Tale after tale after tale of woe.

“What happened back then is past tense,” says Brian Mulligan, the defender who got the line so early in that 2010 semi-final. “It didn’t work out for us on those days and hopefully we can learn from it and drive on and things will come right for us on Sunday. They are a super Ballymun team and we are not under any illusions about what is ahead of us.

“We thought that we left it behind us last year. It was very disappointing at the time and we had put in a lot of hard work, hopefully we can learn from than and drive it on. Maybe we have underachieved but we are just totally focused on Sunday and we won’t be looking back at the past.”

The one upside to all the downsides is that they’ve been through them together. Win as one, lose as one. On their jerseys and track-suits, they carry the nickname ‘Chief’, a tribute to Peter McNulty, one of their number who died two years ago at just 25. Another of them, Craig Rodgers, turned down the chance to join the Laois county panel this year to concentrate on the club. For Mulligan, the chain doesn’t have a weak link in it.

“We are all very close friends on the team,” he says. “We have had a few years where we have had success, winning county titles and that brings a great bond itself to the team. Craig did not go in with the county and that is his own decision. It’s a huge commitment and it’s great to have him at training with us when the other boys are away with the county.”

It all feeds into this. Another winter, another tilt at the spring. No club has won more Leinster titles than Portlaoise, yet still folk doubt them. Ballymun haven’t a fraction of their pedigree but the bookies have the Dublin club down as slight favourites. Nowhere else would serial title-winners get so little love from the tipsters.

Not that it takes a lick out of them. If folk want to think they should take the knee to a team of Dubs, so be it. They know what they have in the locker.

“The football that we are playing is good at the moment,” asserts Mulligan. “But it will all come down to Sunday. We have a huge task ahead of us. Ballymun play a great style of football as well, they are all attacking and look to counterattack. We know that and we will have to be the same. We will have to be up for it.”

Count on it.

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