What was seen as a glorious opportunity for Laois hurlers to escape from the shadows, play in Croke Park, win a national competition, qualify for the All-Ireland championship proper and return to the Leinster championship in 2019 has turned into a shambles.
It is nightmare of immense proportions as Eamonn Kelly’s charges have crashed to successive defeats to lower ranked counties and are now in battle to avoid relegation to the Christy Ring Cup.
With such expectations after the standard set by Cheddar Plunkett and co how has the county side descended to such a new low?
It was expected that Laois would face tough opposition in this six-team group and it was accepted that they might even have the luxury of losing a game and still make the final and go on as the hottest of favourites to win it out.
But the displays in the opening two games have set the alarm bells ringing and nothing short of a miracle now will see them make that coveted final.
Indeed they are now fighting to avoid relegation to the third tier and the Christy Ring cup in 2019.
After Sunday’s game in Tralee manager Eamonn Kelly was lost for words to explain what had gone wrong.
On four occasions he told me “I haven’t the answers” – It was an amazing admission for a manager. I persisted but he still had no answers. “I know what you are probing at” he accused “but I haven’t the answer”.
He was probably being totally honest that he hadn’t the answer as to how a team that was supposedly so well trained and prepared had been out hurled by two teams from Division 2.
They have the full backroom team in place with Eamonn Kelly as manager.
Conor Gleeson from Tipperary is a coach, they have a sports psychologist, a dietitian, Oisin McConville, a strength and conditioning coach, statisticians and video analysts, two physios, a doctor and Owen Coss, a selector, is the only Laois man involved.
They started training earlier than ever this year and were expected to be stronger and fitter than ever. They now have one of the best training facilities in the country and the players want for nothing.
One would expect Laois to be flying then. Wrong! At the start of the league they played well against Limerick and followed that up with a gutsy, physical display against All Ireland champions Galway, a game they could and should have won.
I put it to Eamonn Kelly after that game that his team were playing better than at the same time in 2017. Alas I was wrong as for some extraordinary reason things went downhill alarmingly thereafter.
The big league game was always going to be the local derby against Offaly but alas Laois failed to perform and got a lesson from their neighbours.
Kelly could not explain then “how they were so flat. I have no answer for it”.
They followed that up with another insipid performance against Dublin but a win away to Antrim saved the season and retained their division one status for 2019.
At a press night two weeks ago, the manager, his captain and vice-captain were in top form and told us that there was a great buzz in the squad.
Unfortunately, that buzz hasn’t transferred unto the field of play and as I put it to the manager last Sunday, they look like a team that has been cobbled together and never played together before and he didn’t disagree.
That has to be a terrible indictment on the manager and his management team.
Their job for which they are handsomely rewarded is to prepare a team to be in top physical shape and hurling with a plan and conviction for the championship and particularly for the first running of the Joe McDonagh Cup.
As indeed they looked like a team of individuals that weren’t coached to play as a team. Maybe they were coached and didn’t take the instructions?
I have huge respect for this group of players and for the sacrifice, time and effort they put in and with the support of girlfriends, wives and families they put their life on hold to wear the county jersey year after year.
They are all terrific hurlers in their own right and they deserved the success that the Joe McDonagh Cup promised but it seems they have been let down.
Of course, it is not all the managements fault and for too long we have blamed successive managers but there is glaringly something seriously wrong at the moment.
The performances to date show this.
Like Eamonn Kelly, I don’t have the answers, but I have some observations having closely watched the games from the stands, beside the manager.
Laois have been totally out hurled by both Westmeath and Kerry and neither were flattered by their winning margins.
They both looked to have a game plan, hurled as a team and looked fitter and played with more intensity than Laois.
They were more physical and won the games both on the field and on the side line.
Laois were hammered on their own puckouts both days. Why did Enda Rowland go long with his puckouts both day?. Simple answer is his defenders and midfielders weren’t looking for the ball and making themselves available for his puckouts.
As we looked down from the press box it was obvious that the defenders were not instructed to seek possession, so Rowland was forced to go long.
On both days the opposition had a sweeper and invariable he picked up the puckouts.
On either day I can hardly recall a Laois player plucking the ball from the sky. It is one of the most important facets of the modern game but Laois hurlers don’t practice it.
Then to look at the attack, we arguably have 6/7 of THE best forwards in the county. Roddy King, Picky Maher, Ben Conroy, PJ Scully, Cha Dwyer, Willie Dunphy and Neil Foyle are all top-class attackers for their respective clubs and give huge commitment to the county, but it seems that they have not been coached/instructed to play as an attacking unit.
When have we seen them put 2 or three passes together and ‘manufacture’ a score.
We saw Westmeath do it and we certainly saw Kerry do it. Team work and team play was exemplified by Kerry.
They opened the Laois defence up with their team play, constantly finding a player in a better position scoring three goals and 20 points and should have scored another three goals at least.
There appears to be no passion or physicality to the Laois play apart from the distinct lack of teamwork and the absence of a game plan or the ability to counteract the opposition team plan.
There seems to be no plan A so definitely no plan B. If there is then the players certainly haven’t bought into it.
Laois lost their entire full back line before half time on Sunday but what perplexed supporters was why half back Ryan Mullaney was replaced at half time.
It was confirmed afterwards that he wasn’t injured. Attacker Cian Taylor was switched to defence with Joe Phelan introduced as one corner back with club midfielder Colm Stapleton in the other corner and Matthew Whelan at full back.
It was desperate stuff and before they finalise the team for Antrim the management have questions to answer.
Eamonn Kelly believes that his team can go up north and beat Antrim and win their final two games and I believe that we have the players capable of doing so but not if they play with the same attitude and game plan (or lack of) as they did over the last two weekends. It is last chance saloon on many fronts.
Laois can win on Saturday in Dunloy but what has been allowed to happen to date in the name of Laois hurling is simply not acceptable. Somebody in charge should have the answer?