The Laois hurlers will bid for Joe McDonagh Cup glory at the end of June in Croke Park – but on three occasions in the past they have triumphed in the All Ireland ‘B’ competition, what was essentialy the precursor to the tiered championships that are in play now.
Then it was very much a consolation. Indeed it brought the curtain down on a dramatic season for Laois, one that saw them twice lift trophies in Semple Stadium, exit the Leinster championship in Navan and be rocked by a series of controversies, including multiple resignations and outbursts.
On the first weekend of May that year, Laois won the Division 2 hurling title when the got the better of Antrim in a good game in Thurles, 1-20 to 2-14. That was played as curtain-raiser to the Division 1 final between Cork and Galway and the images from that day of Laois player celebrating on the famous Thurles sod make for nice viewing.
A week later, however, Laois hurling hit a low when they were dumped out of the Leinster championship by Meath in Navan. Meath – then managed by Offaly’s Michael Duignan – beat Laois by 2-16 to 1-18.
It ended Laois’s championship season as there was no back-door provision in place for the teams beaten early on.
It spelled the end for manager Pat Delaney, the former All Ireland winner from Offaly who’d come in the previous winter having worked with the all-conquering Castletown team of that time.
But his time in charge of Laois was dotted with controversy, including the resignation of selectors Andy Dunne and Batt Flavin during the league.
In an interview with Cliona Foley in the Irish Independent, he hit out out at the culture in the county.
“You hear it every year, a big row below in Laois in a club match.
“Until they get rid of that huge bitterness, they won’t go anywhere because they are breaking up good hurlers in club matches,” he said after the loss to Meath.
“They don’t want hurling to work in Laois, the same as Offaly before we made the breakthrough. Laois is three-quarters football,” he added.
In any case, that Meath game was his last game in charge. In the meantime, Laois turned to a certain Seamus ‘Cheddar’ Plunkett to take charge. It would turn out to be a short-term arrangement before Cheddar would come back onto the scene a decade later.
The All Ireland ‘B’ was an optional competition at the time and while there was a handful of withdrawals, Laois got the better of Westmeath and Kildare to book a final place against Wicklow.
But the whole thing was very much an afterthought with club championship games on in Laois the week of the final and the players really just coming together for the matches.
In any case, the final was back in Thurles on the last Saturday in July and played as a curtain raiser to the All Ireland football qualifier between Kerry and Kildare.
And it was a pleasant afternoon for Laois as they proved too strong for Wicklow and won on scoreline of 2-20 to 2-7.
Among the goal-scorers for Laois that day was Portlaoise’s Tommy Fitzgerald, then only 19 and in his first season with the county senior team. This year he’s a selector alongside Eddie Brennan.
Fitzgerald hadn’t played in either the league final win or the championship loss to Meath earlier in the season – indeed only seven of the team that beat Wicklow had.
Castletown’s David Cuddy hit nine points that day while James Young – one of those back involved having not featured earlier – scored five.
Darren Rooney was centre-forward and scored two points from play. At that stage, he had never played senior football for Laois but a year later he was starting on the team that won the 2003 Leinster title.
As for the Laois hurlers, Paudie Butler came in as manager at the end of 2002 and stayed for three seasons.
The Laois team that won that All Ireland ‘B’ was: John Lyons (Castletown); Pat Mahon (Rathdowney), Paul Cuddy (Castletown), Michael McEvoy (Clough-Ballacolla); Joe Phelan (Portlaoise), Cyril Cuddy (Castletown), Owen Bergin (Kilcotton); Ollie Dowling (Camross), James Young (Clonaslee); Fionan O’Sullivan (Castletown), Darren Rooney (Clonaslee), Mick Dunphy (Clough-Ballacolla); Tommy Fitzgerald (Portlaoise), David Cuddy (Castletown), PJ Peacock (Abbeyleix). Subs used: Declan Conroy (Rosenallis), Jack O’Shea (Errill), Lar Mahon (Rathdowney), Brian Ferns (Castletown), Eamon Jackman (Ballinakill)