Shock on the cards?

Laois rel­e­gated in the league and could be vul­ner­a­ble

Bray People - - SPORT - KIERON KENNY

CHAM­PI­ONSHIP 2016 starts this week­end in Le­in­ster and be­yond.

It seems to have crept up on us in many ways with all the fo­cus the past cou­ple of weeks na­tion­ally on the league fi­nals tak­ing up many of the col­umn inches.

This will have suited Johnny Magee and Laois boss Mick Lil­lis down to the ground.

Both man­agers would have been ea­ger to put some dis­ap­point­ing league re­sults be­hind them and get back out on the train­ing field to pre­pare for Satur­day’s opener in Port­laoise.

Wick­low will en­ter as mas­sive un­der­dogs. This is a role that has suited them in the past and with ex­pec­ta­tions low, per­for­mances can be de­liv­ered with­out too much pres­sure.

Magee has a close-knit bunch at his dis­posal now, with an ex­tended train­ing squad work­ing hard since the last league game which was a win in Ruis­lip over Lon­don. It’s much like 12 months ago when they trav­elled to Na­van as to­tal out­siders; they con­founded many crit­ics that day with a fine dis­play and could but for a few missed frees late on left with a win.

A spir­ited per­for­mance in Ar­magh fol­lowed and hopes were high for a good league run in 2016. Open­ing wins over Water­ford and Leitrim of­fered con­crete op­ti­mism but in­juries to key play­ers and a drop in per­for­mance lev­els seen the cam­paign peter out.

Laois them­selves have suf­fered rel­e­ga­tion to Divi­sion 3 for 2017 so won’t be strut­ting around Port­laoise full of con­fi­dence ei­ther.

Lil­lis has seen his ap­point­ment met with plenty of in­ter­nal op­po­si­tion and is re­ally manag­ing un­der pres­sure since day one. He has been suc­cess­ful wher­ever he has man­aged though, Pala­tine in Car­low, St Lau­rences in Kil­dare, and his na­tive Port­laoise have all won ti­tles un­der his tute­lage.

The ad­di­tion of for­mer Galway hurl­ing manger An­thony Cun­ning­ham has met with plenty of de­light amongst many of the cur­rent Laois squad but for­mer player and now pun­dit Colm Parkin­son thought the need to “freshen things up” by Lil­lis af­ter a mere six months in the job doesn’t au­gur well for team spirit.

Cun­ning­ham has plenty of pedi­gree in foot­balling terms with ti­tles for St Brigids in Roscom­mon and Gar­rycas­tle of West­meath. Gar­rycas­tle only missed out on All-Ire­land glory when Cross­ma­glen beat them so he will def­i­nitely bring some­thing to the set up.

Laois are a phys­i­cally im­pos­ing side. Play­ers like John O’Lough­lin, Bren­dan Quigley, Conor Mered­ith, Kevin Meaney, Colm Be­g­ley and the Kingston’s from Ar­les, Donie and Paul, bring plenty of size to the bat­tle if on song.

Some­one fa­mil­iar to many in Wick­low, Un­der-21 star Evan O’Car­roll, from Crett­yard, has been a thorn in Wick­low’s side the last few years at un­der­age and will start.

Gary Walsh, Paul Cahillane and Niall Dono­her are good fast, tricky for­wards while Graiguecul­lens Mark Tim­mins and Dar­ren Strong from Emo are ex­pe­ri­enced top class de­fend­ers. Gra­ham Brody from Port­laoise is the reg­u­lar goal­keeper with O’Dempsey’s Rob­bie Ke­hoe and Paul Cot­ter and Gareth Dil­lon from Port­laoise also reg­u­lars at the back.

Wick­low will most likely line up with Robert Lam­bert start­ing in goal af­ter both Michael Carey and Will Hen­der Phillips also seen ac­tion in the league and O’Byrne cup the ex­pe­ri­ence Lam­bert now has makes him the num­ber one.

Aaron Mur­phy has prob­a­bly been the out­stand­ing player in 2016 and will start with the ev­er­green Ciaran Hy­land also likely to nail down a start­ing berth.

Eoin Murtagh, who was one of a num­ber of play­ers pro­moted from the Un­der-21 team, has gained plenty of ex­pe­ri­ence over the course of the league and could push hard for in­clu­sion along with the speedy John Crowe. The po­si­tion­ing of Stephen Kelly will be in­ter­est­ing af­ter fin­ish­ing the league back in de­fence af­ter some out­ings in the half-for­ward line in ear­lier games.

Ross O’Brien and Paul McLough­lin will push for cen­tral roles with Dean Healy and Chris Mur­phy the main wing men dur­ing the league, while the op­tions have been trimmed some­what here with Kevin Mur­phy out with a ham­string in­jury.

Cap­tain Rory Finn was fly­ing be­fore his in­jury in Leitrim and will prob­a­bly be part­nered in the en­gine room by Anto McLough­lin but Danny Woods won’t be far off. Finn is ac­cu­rate from frees on the right side and has a se­ri­ous work rate to boot. Both McLough­lin and Woods pos­sess plenty of ath­leti­cism and skill and their move­ment and strength will worry Laois.

The for­ward line won’t be easy to pre­dict with many of the young guns from the Un­der-21 team, who al­most cer­tainly could have beaten Laois on their home patch, now push­ing hard for Se­nior places.

Mark Len­non al­ways likes to take on his man and had an eye for a goal.

Pa­trick O’Con­nor was strug­gling re­cently with in­jury but, if fully fit, the young Bless­ing­ton for­ward can be a night­mare to mark with clever move­ment and de­cep­tive strength on the ball.

His brother Mikey is an­other with speed off the mark and the wide spa­ces in O’Moore Park al­ways seem to suit him. Mark Kenny gets through a moun­tain of work ev­ery game and chips in with a point or two if the op­por­tu­ni­ties arise.

On the other wing, if he isn’t de­ployed in the half-back line, will be an­other man with a se­ri­ous ap­petite for work, Dar­ren Hay­den. The Grey­stones man is pos­si­bly the most con­sis­tent per­former over the last few years and no team can rest easy when he is around.

John McGrath is in good form and has been clock­ing up big scores, his free tak­ing will be key. The Balt­in­glass man has tended to ro­tate be­tween full-for­ward and cen­tre-for­ward with Gary Allen in the lat­ter stages of the league.

Dunlavin’s Allen, a real find in 2016, has made the tran­si­tion to Se­nior in­ter­county foot­ball seam­lessly and has a cool head and is a ca­pa­ble free-taker be­sides.

It will be in­ter­est­ing to see if Johnny Magee feels he can go with all the younger lads in the start­ing line-up.

Bray’s Paul Cun­ning­ham will pos­si­bly start at full-for­ward and the Bray man can be a dan­ger, he was per­haps drift­ing too far from goal in the league games but in some games the de­liv­ery of the ball was far too slow in to him. If he is to hurt the Laois full-back line, the ball will have to be played much faster. With no real phys­i­cal pres­ence or height in the for­ward line Wick­low will have to be pre­cise and swift with de­liv­er­ies.

This Laois back line con­ceded five goals to Derry in Port­laoise some weeks back so may be shaky.

Eire Óg flyer Sam Thomp­son and Paddy Byrne of Bal­ly­manus are ru­moured to be show­ing well in train­ing and could get the nod for some game time. Johnny Magee has shown in the past he isn’t afraid to give lads a chance so there could be a few shocks in the start­ing line-up when they take the field on Satur­day evening.

No mat­ter what may or may not be go­ing on in their camp, a trip to the Laois back yard will not be an easy task for this Wick­low team and hasn’t been for any Wick­low team that has gone be­fore ei­ther.

Our last cham­pi­onship meet­ing with them was in Aughrim in 2014 where they came away with a 0-21 to 1-14 win.

Then there was the game on the sunny Satur­day evening in Dr Cullen Park in 2008 un­der Micko where we nearly snatched it at the end through James Stafford for what would have been a well-de­served win af­ter a scin­til­lat­ing game.

Wick­low will have to be smart in their tac­tics and move Laois around the field and test their spirit. The last cham­pi­onship game they played at home will be weigh­ing on their minds with a shock loss to Antrim last June one of the most un­ex­pected re­sults of the sum­mer. The home fans will be anx­ious and nervy and with not much faith or con­fi­dence around they could be there for the tak­ing.

One thing of note about Satur­day’s game is the ticket price which has been set at €25 for a seat in the stand and €15 to take a place on the ter­race.

A dou­ble header may be the rea­son that prices have been set so high but af­ter the poor at­ten­dance at the hurl­ing league fi­nal re­play, and in the na­tional league in gen­eral, maybe it’s time for the GAA hi­er­ar­chy to have a se­ri­ous look at why they feel the need to price the tick­ets so high.

It would be in­ter­est­ing to hear a pre­dic­tion pre game re­gard­ing how many they think will at­tend with a guess of less than 3,500 be­ing the fig­ure a mem­ber of the Laois county board pre­dicted in the last week.

This would surely be swelled by lower ticket prices and the play­ers de­serve to play in front of big­ger crowds than this. Hope­fully the cost of at­tend­ing won’t keep the Wick­low sup­port away on Satur­day.

The book­ies have Laois as hottest of hot favourites at 1/10 on while Wick­low are 7/1.

Wick­low’s John McGrath and Donie Kingston of Laois at the launch of the 2016 Le­in­ster GAA Se­nior foot­ball cham­pi­onship.

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