This Sunday in O’Moore Park, the Portarlington footballers will take on Westmeath champions St Loman’s of Mullingar in the opening round of the Leinster club championship.
It will be the latest challenge for Martin Murphy’s side who have put Laois titles back to back, winning both the 2020 and 2021 championship this calendar year.
They’re unbeaten across those two campaigns and also added the Division 1 league title this year for good measure.
There is an appetite now to have a right good go in Leinster. And why wouldn’t there? They beat Portlaoise by 15 points in the Laois final three weeks ago; they beat Graiguecullen by 11 in the 2020 decider.
They’ve conceded just one goal in 10 championship games in two years and their average winning margin in that time has been 7.5 points per game.
St Loman’s, with Westmeath talisman John Heslin at full-forward, will be a big step up but for the winners the prize is huge – a Leinster semi-final in Croke Park a week before Christmas against either Kilmacud Crokes of Dublin or Meath’s Wolfe Tones.
Because there was no Leinster club championship for the 2020 season, Sunday’s outing will be Portarlington’s first in the province since this time 20 years ago, when the team captained by John Bolton and including club legends like Hughie Emerson, David Sweeney and Adrian Phelan ran Na Fianna of Dublin to three points in their quarter-final clash in their own McCann Park in Port.
While the club championships was only introduced in the early 1970s, Port did take part in one of the fore-runners to the competition when they won the invitational Arklow tournament in 1955, on the back of winning the Laois championship.
Incidentally the Port team of 1954 and 1955 also won two championships in the same calendar year.
Their prize for beating Baltinglass of Wicklow in that prestigious tournament final was a 21-piece tea set of Arklow Pottery!
To more modern times, Port’s forays into the Leinster club competition were more short-lived.
In 1988, after winning the Laois championship for the first time in 39 years, they crossed swords with Baltinglass once again.
The Wicklow champions were establishing themselves on the Leinster club scene at the time, having lost the Leinster club final to Portlaoise in 1985 and were in the middle of a glorious era for the club.
Played in O’Moore Park, the sides were level 0-5 apiece at half time, but Port would fail to score in the second half and Baltinglass ran out 0-11 to 0-5 winners.
“Portarlington’s effort fizzles out against competent Baltinglass,” was the headline in the Leinster Express the following week.
Baltinglass were later beaten by eventual Leinster champions Parnells in their next outing but would return the following year to win the Leinster title before adding the All Ireland crown on St Patrick’s Day of 1990.
It would be the autumn of 1995 before Port got back into provincial action – and their draw couldn’t have been any tougher.
After beating St Joseph’s in the Laois final to win the Jack Delaney Cup for the first time in seven years, they were drawn away to Eire Og of Carlow, who had been Leinster champions in 1992 and 1993 and would win five titles in all in the 1990s.
Eire Og, though, only scraped past Port by a point, needing a huge performance to get the win.
Port, who had to field without Evan Bennett and John Bolton, led 0-7 to 1-2 at the break in Dr Cullen Park but fell behind midway through the second half only for Graham Burke and Dermot O’Connor to point late on to draw the sides level.
A replay looked on the cards before sub Paul McCarthy pointed in the closing stages to deny Port.
“Portarlington deserved a draw from this entertaining tie,” was how the Leinster Express reported it a few days later under the headline “Portarlington denied in injury time”.
“There were some outstanding displays from Portarlington, Adrian Phelan in defence had a marvellous game well supported by Damien Ryan, Noel Coss, Bobby Doris and ‘keeper Paul Sweeney.
“Pat Galvin was a strong contender for man of the match … and Colm Maher and Eddie Byrne both worked hard in the attack also.”
Eire Og would again go on to win Leinster that year, before losing the All Ireland final to Laune Rangers of Kerry the following March.
2001 would be the next time Port would get another chance in Leinster on the back of beating Stradbally after a replay in the Laois SFC final.
This time they recorded their first win in the competition when they beat Fr Manning Gaels of Longford by 1-9 to 1-8 in what was the first big outing in McCann Park in front of the new stand. To add to the novelty of the occasion, Port wore a change strip of a white jersey and maroon shorts to avoid a clash with the Longford side.
The win set them up to play Na Fianna of Dublin, a star-studded side with the likes of Jason Sherlock, Dessie Farrell, Senan Connell and Kieran McGeeney of Armagh.
Again it was in McCann Park in front of a bumper crowd and Port pushed Na Fianna all the way, losing by 2-9 to 0-12.
“Determined Dessie helps Na Fianna to hard-earned win,” was the headline in the Irish Independent.
Port were 2-6 to 0-5 down early in the second half but stormed back into the game with four points in a row.
Describing the game as a “cracking tie”, reporter Paddy Hickey noted that “for lengthy periods of both halves, Laois champions Portarlington were camped in the territory of Dublin kingpins Na Fianna but glaring inaccuracy in front of goal proved the undoing of the extremely game home side”.
“The match statistics speak for themselves with Port compiling a total of 13 wides and Na Fianna off target on only one occasion.”
“I knew it wasn’t going to be easy as I was well aware Portarlington are a very strong side,” said Na Fianna manager Mick Galvin afterwards.
“I’m sure Na Fianna were very relieved to hear the final whistle,” said Port manager Padraig Dunne. “Our lads showed tremendous guts and courage to battle back from seven points down in the second half.
“But unfortunately we are not as experienced as Na Fianna and we never showed the same composure as them in front of the posts.”
Na Fianna, who’d been in the 1999 All Ireland final against Crossmaglen, would go on to lose the Leinster final that year to Wicklow club Rathnew after a replay.
Portarlington, amazingly, never built on that 2001 season. They didn’t even get back to a semi-final in Laois again until 2017 and the 2020 final appearance was their first since 2001.
Now, though, they have a team as good as anything the club have produced previously.
They have a chance to take another step forward this Sunday.
Portarlington v St Loman’s (Westmeath) takes place in O’Moore Park this Sunday, December 5, at 2pm