Hot on the heels of Laois’ championship exit, the club SFC gets underway this weekend as Portlaoise look to extend an already record breaking run to six senior titles in a row.
Can anyone stop them achieving it? Well, no, probably not. If anything, the gap is probably widening between them and everyone else. Graiguecullen came closest to them last year but they are already in a weaker position than they were in 2011, having lost Barry Brennan, Darryl Hayden and Terence Haughney to name just three.
Portlaoise are currently playing at a level and a speed which teams in the county just can’t handle, as they have neither the players nor the ambition to match it. The Laois senior football championship is no longer a competition which throws up anything in the way of suspense, as Portlaoise look like they could go on winning it for the next four or five years at least, if they have the hunger to do so.
The promise of an upset is what adds to the excitement of any competition, and that is where the club championship is struggling, as there is little in the way of unpredictability. It wasn’t always so, and it has only been since Portlaoise’s history making run of five titles that the competitive edge has gone out of the competition. That’s not Portlaoise’s fault, but their dominance seems to have deflated most of the teams, with only a few seemingly intent on taking the challenge to them.
Between 1992 and 2006, the only team to retain the SFC title was Stradbally, in 1997, with eight different teams winning it in that time. Now, there are only maybe a handful of clubs who could realistically look to qualify for a final. The rest of the county is very much in survival mode.
Emigration has played its part here, with Portlaoise one of the few clubs to survive relatively unscathed from the mass exodus of young males from the country. Some clubs like St Joseph’s, O’Dempsey’s and Clonaslee St Manman’s have seen almost half a team leave these shores, and it is hard to expect them to come back from such setbacks with a competitive championship team for this time of year.
The loss of players overall has seen the standard of the championship go down too, with the lack of some basics, like kick passing and scoring, particularly disturbing. Clubs are doing the best that they can, but it is unlikely to see any of them to a county title.
With all of the losses clubs are sustaining, it is surprising that there have been none opting to come together as a Gaels team or otherwise to compete in the senior championship. The last team to win a championship before Portlaoise was Ballyroan Abbey Gaels, but the rest of the clubs in the county have been reluctant to bite the bullet and look at extending a hand to their neighbours. Perhaps the subsequent rises and falls of Ballyroan Abbey are not the best advertisement for the venture, but certainly some clubs, the way things are going, would look to be better served by asking for help.
That is debate for another day, for now we will stick to the 2012 championship. The main rivals to Portlaoise are probably going to come in the form of Arles-Kilcruise, who despite a poor showing in the ACFL Division 1 semi-final a couple of weeks ago, look the most likely to lead the assault on Portlaoise’s title. They lost out in that game against Emo in part because they did not have their county players, and with Ross Munnelly, David Conway, Colm Munnelly and Kevin Meaney all restored to their starting team, they will be a different proposition.
Whether they can actually dethrone Portlaoise remains to be seen, but having come so close on so many occasions, it looks at this stage that they may have missed their chance. Timahoe too, having made the final in 2008 before being relegated and coming back, have had a positive league campaign, and with all of their county contingent in sparkling form, will fancy their chances of returning to another final.
Graiguecullen may come again, but could be too hampered by the missing players, while Arles-Killeen, with Donie Kingston back, could also threaten the semi-finals again. One team to keep an eye out for will be Killeshin, who are fresh to the championship and won’t be happy to settle for a year of just survival. They will want to press on, and may upset a few teams along the way.
At the other end, Clonaslee St Manman’s will again struggle to hold their place in the championship in the face of a crippling number of absentees. The Heath finished bottom of Division 1 and will need to start performing if they are to avoid another brush with relegation as they did in 2007. The Rock, Portarlington, Crettyard, Ballylinan, St Joseph’s and Mountmellick could all find themselves in trouble as well, and all will be desperate to get that one victory that would assure them of survival.
And therein lies the problem. Survival is success for many, and that’s the difference. Portlaoise not winning six in a row would be a massive surprise, and they’re unlikely to be caught again this year.