Shock on the cards?
Laois relegated in the league and could be vulnerable
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.