With the Laois hurlers beginning their Leinster championship campaign this Saturday – with the first of five games in six weeks – we look back on the last time the county had such a schedule of big games, their run to the 1984 Centenary Cup final.
It started in Borris-in-Ossory and it ended in Croke Park.
It was an adventure that included wins in Nowlan Park and Semple Stadium and it was a campaign that saw Laois knock out Limerick, Tipperary and Galway on successive Sundays before eventually going down to Cork in Croke Park.
The 1984 Centenary Cup was an open draw competition brought in to mark the 100th anniversary of the GAA’s establishment.
And the fine Laois hurling team of the 1980s fully embraced the concept, going on a run of games that is still talked about to this day.
There can be no doubting the quality of the Laois team of that era. They made National League semi-finals, a Leinster final and the final of the Centenary Cup, all between 1981 and 1985.
In 1981, they were denied by Offaly and the infamous side netting goal. The following year, with Offaly as reigning All Ireland champions, Laois brought them to a replay.
Even that 1983-1984 league campaign was packed full of great moments. In the opening round they beat Cork. They also had wins over Clare, Waterford (twice) and Kilkenny before eventually they were knocked out by Tipperary in a playoff game.
The Centenary Cup brought more magic. It was played after the league finished and before the championship started and produced some novel fixtures and shock results.
Roscommon beat Wexford at home in Athleague before losing to Cork. Kilkenny went to Aughrim to play Wicklow; Tipperary to Newbridge to face Kildare.
Laois were the biggest story, though.
With O’Moore Park still being redeveloped, they played their home games in a variety of venues around the county in those years.
And 3,000 crammed into O’Keeffe Park in Borris-in-Ossory for that opening round game against a Limerick side only recently crowned league champions and boasting a selection of big names from the side that had lost the 1980 All Ireland final and won Munster titles back-to-back in 1980-81.
“Limerick, the newly-crowned National Hurling League champions, crashed out of the competition to a spirited Laois side, who rose magnificently to the challenge,” reported the Irish Independent the following day.
“There was just a single, hard-earned point between the sides, as Laois won by 2-9 to 2-8.
“It was a thrilling encounter, watched by a largely partisan attendance of about 3,000, but there was no fluke about the outcome as the host county advanced strictly on merit.”
Laois needed to stage an heroic comeback to pull through. Two goals from the legendary Joe McKenna had Limerick 2-6 to 0-4 up early in the second half.
But a well-taken goal from Ray Broderick, after good work from Martin Cuddy and John Delaney, sparked a comeback as Laois were roared on by a huge band of supporters.
“A goal from PJ Cuddy, after substitute Mick Walsh had provided the opening 13 minutes from the finish, gave the Laois followers plenty of opportunity to lend their vocal support,” added reporter Damien McElroy in the Irish Independent.
“Laois defended as if their very lives depended upon it in the last ten minutes, but at the other end they found it difficult to get the all-important scores.
“John Taylor showed his forwards how with a long range point, and Ray Broderick followed up two minutes later to bring Laois on level terms.
“In the remaining seven minutes Limerick fought desperately to hold out and managed to do so until four minutes from the finish, when Billy Bohane convened a free from 40 yards range that proved to be the match-winner.”
A week later Bohane was the hero once again, once more pointing a late free as Laois saw off Tipperary by a point in the quarter-final on a scoreline of 1-17 to 4-7.
It was an ill-tempered game, one that saw four sent off, three of them from Tipp, as well as Laois’s John Bohane.
“Refusing to be intimidated by Tipperary’s questionable physical approach and hurling throughout with tremendous spirit, Laois avenged their League play-off defeat at Tipperary’s hands in a torrid, thrilling Ford Centenary Cup quarter-final show-down at Nowlan Park,” went the opening paragraph in the Independent.
“However, although enjoying numerical superiority throughout the second half, as Tipperary clung tenaciously to their lead, Laois had to wait until injury time to book their passage to a semi-final meeting with Galway next Sunday by the narrowest of margins in a real cliff-hanger.”
On the following Sunday, the semi-finals were played as a double header in Semple Stadium. Laois against Galway; Offaly against Cork.
And Laois once again played their part in a thriller, coming from eight points down early in the second half to win 5-7 to 4-9. For the third week in a row they won by a point.
This time Martin Brophy was the match-winner with his late point settling the tie in Laois’s favour. The legendary PJ Cuddy got a hat-trick; Michael ‘Maggie’ Walsh and Christy Jones getting a goal apiece.
“It’s hats off this morning to the brave and courageous hurlers of Laois,” wrote Tom O’Riordan in his match report the following day for the Irish Independent.
“Virtually on the rack after 15 minutes of the second half when they trailed by eight points, they bounced back to deny Galway any further scores and then capped a superb recovery as Martin Brophy notched the winning point with virtually the last puck of a thrilling Centenary Cup semi final at Thurles yesterday.
“No praise is really too high for Laois after this victory which followed earlier successes over Limerick and Tipperary.”
Unfortunately that was as good as it got for Laois.
They went to Croke Park the following week to face Cork but the result went overwhelmingly against Laois. PJ Cuddy got his customary goal alright but Cork were comprehensive 2-21 to 1-9 winners.
By now the well was beginning to run dry for Laois. Attempts to have their opening round Leinster championship game against Kilkenny came to nothing so for the fifth week running, they prepared for battle.
This time Dr Cullen Park in Carlow was the venue and it was packed to the rafters, an estimated attendance of 15,000. Kilkenny were beginning their quest for three-in-a-row and they were in no mood to be shocked.
Laois had beaten them in the league only a couple of months earlier.
But it wasn’t to be for Laois. Kilkenny were 4-15 to 1-16 winners. The championship was straight knockout. Laois’s year was over.
Five weeks. Five big games and big occasions for a great Laois team getting a run of games that hadn’t been experienced since the All Ireland final appearance of 1949.
The supporters duly got in behind them and though it ultimately ended it disappointment, the momentum carried into 1985 when Laois beat Dublin and Wexford to reach the Leinster final where Offaly would prove too strong.
Success would evade them but that Laois team – and the magic couple of weeks in 1984 – remain fondly remembered.