Home Sport GAA Chance for silverware at the start of McNulty’s second reign as Laois...

Chance for silverware at the start of McNulty’s second reign as Laois face Leitrim in Croke Park

NFL Division 4 Final – Laois v Leitrim
In Croke Park at 5pm (Live on TG4)

The National Football League finals take centre stage this Easter weekend and Laois are up first as they take on Leitrim.

The game throws in at 5pm, will be shown live on TG4, and forms part of a double header with the Division 3 final between Westmeath and Down.

For Laois, it will be their eighth time to play at GAA HQ in the last six years.

Whille for Leitrim, it will be just the sixth time in their entire history that they have graced the hallowed turf.

Laois defeated Carlow twice in Croke Park in 2018 (NFL Division 4 final and Leinster semi final) but have lost on their last five visits.

They were beaten by Louth and Westmeath in Division 3 in 2019, Meath in the Leinster semi final later that year and Dublin at the same stage the following year.

While their return to Croke Park in 2023 was not a happy one either as they were hammered by Down in the Tailteann Cup semi final.

Whatever about Laois’s recent struggles in Croke Park, their opponents Leitrim have never won in the capital.

They lost a league semi-final against Derry in 1959, the 1994 All-Ireland semi-final with Dublin, a league game against Dublin in 1995 and the 2006 Tommy Murphy Cup final to Louth.

Their most recent trip was in 2019 when they were beaten by Derry in the Division 4 final – bringing 10,000 supporters.

There has been much discussion about abolishing league finals – but for counties like Laois and Leitrim, the opinion is they simply must stay.

Speaking on the LaoisToday Talking Sport Podcast this week, Laois captain Evan O’Carroll was very much in favour of retaining them.

And speaking to Damian Lawlor on RTE this week, Leitrim chairman Enda Stenson echoed those sentiments. 

He said: “For us, this is our chance of silverware. We are not going to win Sam Maguire, and, to be honest, we might struggle against some top teams if they were in the Tailteann Cup so if anything, I would nearly look at a third-tier championship in football.

“So, to do away with the league finals? Well, if they do that they would more or less take away all hope from us. The league is our main bread and butter, our main competition every year. It’s our chance of progress. Our chance of winning something.

“And to get to Croke Park, well counties like Dublin, Kilkenny, Mayo get there all the time. Maybe the effect of playing games there so often reduces the appeal for teams and supporters.

“But for Leitrim, that would never happen. We will bring as many as we can. There will be people waiting in their homes for hours before they leave for Dublin.

“Everyone in our county knows a player. They are all sons, nephews and neighbours of someone close by or up the road.

“It’s the biggest thing in our county in years and the excitement is unreal. For an occasion like that to be taken away? God, no.”

Switching back to Laois, this season started with a big shock as they appointed former Armagh winning footballer Justin McNulty as manager.

He was last in charge from 2010 to 2013 and his spell saw Laois play in Division 1 and contest an All-Ireland quarter final.

Laois have fallen substantially since and McNulty’s career has saw him become an MLA for the SDLP in Stormont.

Laois began with a mixed O’Byrne Cup campaign but began Division 4 with a great win over Longford.

Round 2 brought controversy as Laois were away to Wexford on the night that to Stormont Assembly resumed after years of being dormant.

McNulty had to take a helicopter to make the match and displeased his party bosses for doing so as they suspended him.

Laois won the match well and McNulty was back in the party fold quickly afterwards – so all is well that ends well on that front.

Laois then enjoyed wins over Carlow, Tipperary and London to leave them on the cusp of promotion when Leitrim arrived in Portlaoise on St Patrick’s weekend.

Andy Moran’s men inflicted the first league defeat upon them by a point – a last minute Mark Barry free coming back off the post to deny Laois a draw.

Laois needed a draw in their final game with Waterford and were 20 points up by the 25th minute – winning handily in the end.

Leitrim’s journey to this point has been far more turbulent – and it looked at one stage like their chance of promotion was gone.

They defeated Waterford and London in their first two games before a fortuitous last minute penalty saw them beat Wexford in Round 3 – a result that would carry massive significance in the end.

A last minute Colm Hulton goal saw Carlow inflict a first defeat upon them in Round 4 and they lost again in Round 5 against Longford.

But that win against Laois reignited their charge and when they beat Tipperary on the final day and Wexford did the same to Longford, Leitrim were second above Wexford on the head to head rule.

Laois will return to Croke Park later today which a team that is vastly different from the side that played nine months ago.

Killian Roche returns in goal but five of the back six that started that game are no longer on the panel.

Alex Mohan and Padraig Kirwan are absent through injury, Paddy O’Sullivan and Robbie Pigott are in Australia while Sean Greene opted out.

In the forwards, Colm Murphy is also in Australia this year while James Finn is also not part of the panel.

In their place, Ben Dempsey, Shuan Fitzpatrick and Conor Heffernan have stepped up from the U-20s.

Seamus Lacey has become established at full back, Brian Byrne is back from injury while James Kelly’s return and the emergence of the likes of Jack Lacey, Niall Dunne and Rioghan Murphy has bolstered things.

Some raised their eyebrows when it was announced that Justin McNulty had returned but all has gone swimmingly thus far – silverware would top that off.

Team news?

The team shows one change from the side that started the big win over Waterford on Sunday.

Killeshin’s Conor Heffernan, who was replaced before throw in by Portlaoise’s Kieran Lillis, has been selected at midfield again.

Other than that, the team that has been named is completely unchanged.

James Kelly, who was a late addition to the bench on Sunday last in place of Dylan Kavanagh, also retains his place among the subs.

LAOIS: Killian Roche (Killeshin); Ben Dempsey (Portlaoise), Seamus Lacey (Ballylinan), Jack Lacey (St Joseph’s), Eoin Buggie (Stradbally), Mark Timmons (Graiguecullen), Brian Byrne (Graiguecullen); Conor Heffernan (Killeshin), Damon Larkin (Portlaoise); Kevin Swayne (Portlaoise), Eoin Lowry (Killeshin), Shaun Fitzpatrick (Ballyroan-Abbey); Mark Barry (O’Dempsey’s), Evan O’Carroll (Crettyard), Paul Kingston (Arles-Killeen).

Subs: Aaron Cooney (St Joseph’s), Niall Corbet (Clonaslee-St Manman’s), Brian Daly (St Joseph’s), Mikie Dempsey (St Joseph’s), Simon Fingleton (Park-Ratheniska), Niall Dunne (Courtwood), James Kelly (St Joseph’s), Kieran Lillis (Portlaoise), Sean O’Flynn (Courtwood), Rioghan Murphy (Portarlington), Danny O’Reilly (Graiguecullen)

Andy Moran has named the same starting 15 that defeated Laois in Portlaoise three weeks ago.

LEITRIM: Nevin O’Donnell; Conor Reynolds, Donal Casey, Aidan Flynn; Donal Wrynn, Mark Diffley, Jack Foley; Jack Gilheany, Pearce Dolan; Mark Plunkett, Ryan O’Rourke, Barry McNulty; Tom Prior, Darragh Rooney, Riordan O’Rourke.

What Leitrim players should we watch out for?

From the game in Portlaoise, it is clear that Ryan O’Rourke caused Laois most problems as he scored 0-6.

Darragh Rooney was accurate from placed balls while Barry McNulty and Donal Wrynn are powerful ball carriers.

Nevin O’Donnell’s kick outs are excellent and Laois will have to defend those better.

What are the odds?

Laois are firm favourites at 3/10 while Leitrim are outside at 7/2. The draw is 17/2.

Who is reffing it?

Thomas Murphy from Galway has been selected to be the man in the middle for this game.

Our records indicate that he has never officiated a game involving Laois before.

Tickets? TV?

The game is available to watch on TV on TG4 and we will also keep you updated on our Live Blog.

Tickets can be purchased both online and in person using the following: Online by clicking here.

SEE ALSO – Check out all our latest local sports coverage here