This Sunday the Laois footballers will belatedly begin their 2021 season with a trip to Ennis to take on Clare in the opening round of the National Football League.
If Round 1 of the hurling league taught us anything, it is hard to know what we can expect from the game.
Both teams have not played competitively in almost six months – with Laois managing to squeeze in a challenge game against Limerick at the weekend as their only meaningful preparation.
Like the hurling, there will be a new sin-bin for certain cynical tackles inside the 20-metre line or within the ‘D’ which will also result in a penalty. The sin bin which was operation in previous years for other defined cynical play elsewhere on the field will still remain.
The structure of the league has also changed with less games and all divisions being split regionally on a North/South basis.
Laois are in Division 2 South and after this, they face home ties with Cork and Kildare.
The top two teams will progress to semi finals while the bottom two will play relegation playoffs with the losers relegated to Division 3 and potentially forced into the Tailteann Cup in 2022 (if that is still a thing?).
What it will mean is that Laois will play three weekends in a row, have a week off, and then potentially play two more weekends before facing Westmeath in the Leinster quarter final.
And speaking of Westmeath, they are in Division 2 North meaning that Laois could potentially play them in a league semi final or relegation playoff – pending results of course.
For the second consecutive year, Laois are managed by Kerry native Mike Quirke.
He has managed to retain the vast majority of his panel from 2020 – and also managed to add some faces too.
Save for Killeshin’s Stephen Attride who remains in Australia, Quirke appears to have the majority of what the county has to offer at his disposal – and that isn’t something that many Laois managers can say in recent years.
Aside from a couple of short-term injuries, reports from inside the camp are positive on that front too.
Here we take a look at the likely contenders for the various positions.
Clonaslee’s Niall Corbet played his first ever games as a goalkeeper in 2020 and certainly did more than enough to warrant his spot in the number one jersey to begin the year.
2018 All-Star nominee Graham Brody is not part of the panel so Courtwood’s Matthew Byron is likely to once again provide back up.
Graiguecullen’s Mark Timmons, who celebrated his 35th birthday yesterday, is nailed on to start at full back once again this season but there is plenty of competition for the corner back slots.
The Heath’s Denis Booth has retired but Portlaoise’s Gareth Dillon has committed once again while his clubmate David Seale, Killeshin’s Shane Bolger and St Joseph’s James Kelly will be in the mix.
Portarlington’s Robbie Pigott and Graiguecullen duo Trevor Collins and Brian Byrne could also do a job back here if not selected further up the field.
If you include the aforementioned Pigott and Collins here, this could be the most competitive line on the team.
Ballylinan duo Alan Farrell and Seamus Lacey, Stradbally’s Eoin Buggie, Portarlington’s Paddy O’Sullivan and Courtwood’s Sean O’Flynn all started games at half back for Laois last year.
Veteran Colm Begley missed almost all of 2020 with injury but he is back fit now while Portarlington’s Sean Byrne has also rejoined the panel after opting out for the championship last year. Emo’s Finbarr Crowley and Ballyroan-Abbey’s Aaron Carroll are also well in the mix here.
While Byrne, Farrell and Crowley could probably operate on the half forward line, the rest will be left scrapping for three starting spots.
For the last number of years, this has picked itself with captain Kieran Lillis and long-term partner John O’Loughlin almost dead certainties.
That may well prove to be the case, but the re-emergence of Danny O’Reilly last year following a series of injuries definitely gives manager Quirke something to think about.
His agility gives him something different than the other two – although he is another one who could find a home on the half forward line too.
St Joseph’s Brian Daly showed his worth when he was thrust into action in the first half of the must win final round league game against Fermanagh last year and he is there once again.
Danny O’Reilly, Brian Byrne, Sean Byrne, Finbarr Crowley and Alan Farrell have been mentioned as possible starters on the half forward line and there are many more in the running.
Arles-Killeen’s Paul Kingston returned to the panel after the Covid break last year and did really well while Killeshin’s Eoin Lowry and St Joseph’s Michael Keogh also showed well in these positions.
Portlaoise’s Benny Carroll is back to fitness after struggling with injury last year but Ballyroan-Abbey duo Marty Scully and Diarmuid Whelan are struggling with injury.
The headline from the final line of the field is the return of Laois’s second highest all-time leading scorer – Donie Kingston.
The Arles-Killeen man returned to the panel is surely nailed on to start at full forward. Filling the other two positions is a little harder to workout with some fine players in the mix.
Ballylinan’s Gary Walsh was arguably Laois’s best forward last year with him and Crettyard’s Evan O’Carroll forming a nice partnership in the absence of Kingston as the year progressed.
O’Dempsey’s Mark Barry will be pushing hard while Portarlington’s Colm Murphy has also returned after withdrawing for the championship last year.
38-year-old Ross Munnelly is embarking on his 19th season representing the senior footballers and the Arles-Kilcruise man, Laois’s leading all-time scorer, is always good for a score.
What the year holds
Laois’s league campaign sees them play Clare this Sunday before hosting Cork and Kildare in the weeks that follow.
They will then have a week off before playing either a league semi final or a relegation final.
Should they reach the league final, that will only be played if their opponent is not due out in championship action on the same weekend.
Laois are due to play Westmeath in the Leinster quarter final in the first week of July.
This year’s football championship is again a knockout with no backdoor element.