Down challenge must be seen off to secure top flight status

It is all very close in the Allianz NFL Division 1 this weekend, but for Laois, it’s all very simple too; win by three points or more and they will remain in the top flight of league football for next year.

It is all very close in the Allianz NFL Division 1 this weekend, but for Laois, it’s all very simple too; win by three points or more and they will remain in the top flight of league football for next year.

They welcome Down to O’Moore Park this weekend, a side Laois have struggled to beat in recent times, knowing exactly what needs to be done. After a topsy-turvy league campaign, this weekend at least brings some certainty, as their fate in in their own hands, regardless of what happens elsewhere.

Laois come into the game on the back of two of their more encouraging performances of the league; a win over Armagh and defeat to Kerry which could, and perhaps should, have been a victory to Laois too.

On the injury front, the return of Padraig Clancy and David Conway could hardly be better timed, and the return of both to club action at the weekend coincided with both Timahoe and Arles-Kilcruise opening their ACFL Division 1 campaigns with victories.

Clancy’s return in particular is a huge boost, as Laois have really struggled to replace him at full-forward since he was forced out of the Dublin game with a torn hamstring.

In Laois’ most recent games against Down, the player who reaped the most reward against them was Donie Kingston, so if past performances are any indicator, Laois will be hoping they too can get some joy from a big presence on the edge of the Down square.

Knowing they need a win, Laois will have to be that bit more direct and ruthless than they have been in the past, particularly so against Kerry, when they had enough possession and chances to win the game but squandered it on silly shots or under-hit efforts on the Kerry goal. With scoring difference likely to come into play, every score counts, so Laois can’t afford to waste scoring opportunities on Sunday. They will have to work a little bit harder in attack to create better chances, and have the confidence to take the shot when they arise.

In defence, Laois have struggled this year against the better class of team they have encountered in Division 1, glaringly so against Cork and even Mayo in the opening round. The full-back line, where Kieran Lillis has performed admirably in very tough conditions, have gotten little protection from further out the field, and Laois will have to win the midfield battle this weekend to stop the steady stream of ball landing on the likes of Lillis, Healy and Peter O’Leary which has caused damage in the past.

Even in the win over Armagh, Laois were lucky not to concede at least three goals, with Eoin Culliton coming to the rescue throughout the game. It’s not fair or reasonable to expect him to perform miracles every game, so the defence needs midfield and attack to start doing more defensive work.

That doesn’t have to result in three or four of the forward line falling back past the half back line, but instead if they can exert pressure on the Down defence further up the field, it will stop the Mourne men having the chance to pick out passes from out the field.

That has been the biggest flaw with Laois’ defensive tactics, as they have conceded territory for the sake of having numbers in their own half of the field. Too often, though, opposition half backs and midfielders have too much time on the ball to pick out a pass, and the weight of Laois’ numbers in defence is bypassed.

There are certainly things Laois need to work on, but it’s not all negative going into this game, and the commitment and resolve this group have shown throughout the last eight months, when they have seen fellow team mates walk away from the panel, is commendable.

We said in these pages at the start of the league campaign that if they could stay in Division 1 it would be a fantastic achievement, and there is no doubting that if they do beat Down on Sunday afternoon, it will be a significant step forward in the development of this team.

Everyone knows the league is a secondary competition in the greater scheme of things, but the importance of playing in Division 1 cannot be overlooked. The teams who have dominated over the last five to ten years in football have been consistently competing at this level, and if Laois can secure another Division 1 campaign in 2013 it should see an upturn in the progression of our county’s senior football team.

If nothing else, this weekend’s game is wonderful preparation for the championship clash with Longford in May. In recent years, Laois have struggled mentally to cope with days like this Sunday, when the expectation is there and they are playing a quality team.

Victory over Down will exorcise a lot of demons for this group of players, but more importantly, it will give them the chance to create more positive experiences next year. A win won’t automatically rectify the varying problems surrounding Laois football at the moment, but it would be a good start.