And so we wait. Five months since the Laois senior hurlers last played a competitive game, and three months since Teddy McCarthy resigned, the efforts to find a replacement for the Cork man go on.
As the search for a new senior hurling manager looks set to head into December, it gives all involved a chance to look at the role they have played in Laois ending up in this position. Rory Delaney reports
While the need to take some time is understandable, the quantity of time which has been used up is worrying. Laois were scheduled to go back to training on Friday, November 16, but that date has slipped by and the players remain in dry dock, left to their own devices. One of the biggest gripes of the players over the last few years has been the lack of a proper pre-season training programme, and another season looks set to slip by without one in place.
Seamas Plunkett and Paul Cuddy have been doing huge work since voluntarily agreeing to help the county board to firstly, deal with the players, and the secondly, find a manager. The cause for the delay doesn’t rest at their door, but instead is part of wider series of problems which have left the Laois senior hurling team a national laughing stock.
A lack of clear leadership and a group of players who have tainted their reputation time and again have both contributed to the current malaise. The vicious circle of players walking away and managers losing control has been going on for years, and for those on the outside looking in, Laois hurling could only be viewed as a shambles. Take a look at some of the happenings in recent years; players aren’t provided with enough O’Neill’s sliotars for training, when Brendan Fennelly was hired one county board official denied he was about to be appointed on the same day that another said he was. An exit from the Leinster championship seems to signal an almost mental exit from a lot of the players too, as they fall away rapidly from that point on.
Both players and county board officials will have their reasons as to why all of these things happen, but you have to factor in the perception it creates. If Laois are trying to sell themselves to a new manager, all he will know from the last few years is that the players lack commitment and the county board have not provided the conditions for which they will commit. It might be an unpalatable situation for all involved, but that’s the way things are.
It’s a shame because, believe it or not, the Laois job provides a great opportunity for any aspiring manager at the moment. In Division 2A of the the National League, a well-organised and interested Laois team could win it easily. In the championship, Laois meet either Antrim or Westmeath, both beatable, with a game against Carlow or London to follow, neither of which would strike too much fear into most Laois players.
If a new manager could deliver a league title and two Leinster championship wins in his first year, it would put him in a very strong position. Expectations are incredbly low inspite of recent forward strides at underage level, and it offers a manager a chance to work in an atmosphere where instant success is not demanded.
The problem for anyone looking to take the reins, however, is the risk. Is it worth risking a managerial career with a spell in charge of the Laois hurlers? There will need to be some negotiating done on the part of Laois GAA to convince people that it is.
Hopefully having people like Seamas Plunkett and Paul Cuddy involved will show possible candidates that there is potential here. Even amidst the turmoil of the last few years, Laois have displayed examples of an ability to compete against, and sometimes even beat, better teams. All of the stakeholders in this affair need to shown signs of growth, however, if they are to drag themselves out of the mire the county is in, starting with the players.
Talent in the county has never been in short supply. Indeed, if last year taught us anything, it is that there is still talent coming through with the performances of the minors and U-21s. The seniors, however, continue to slip further and further towards the Christy Ring trap door.
They have laid down the criteria for the type of manager they believe is needed to return them to a competitive level, but in doing so they have placed incredible pressure on themselves. If the manager they crave is appointed, will they be able to commit on a large enough scale to back up their demands?
Let’s not forget, when Seamas Plunkett and Paul Cuddy called their meeting to liaise with the players on behalf of the county board, only eight players showed up. Eight. Out of roughly 40 or so who were invited. Only eight had enough interest to travel to the Midway hotel and put their views across.
It’s also worth remembering that after Brendan Fennelly’s appointment, only 13 players showed up to meet him before he had even taken a training session. That’s a poor reflection on the players too.
Much has been made of the timing of the most recent meeting (it was on a Monday night, after the club SHC semi-finals), but that’s an easy excuse too. If a player had enough interest in shaping his intercounty future, he would have made the effort. There is a core of dedicated, model senior intercounty players in Laois, but are there enough?
Essentially, the question is, are there enough players who have enough belief in themselves and each other to pull together and create a more positive mentality about playing for Laois? It won’t be easy, and certainly hasn’t been in the past, but they will have to fully commit to a manager, whatever the initial teething problems, because the current practice of averaging almost a manager every year will get Laois hurling nowhere.
If and when a manager is appointed, the new setup, regardless of who is involved, won’t be perfect, but will the players commit long enough for it to get better?
The County Board’s track record at appointing managers in recent years is patchy at best. The only reasonably successful manager in the last five years has been Niall Rigney, but they can’t take credit for that as he was already a selector when Damian Fox resigned, and stepped into the breach before then being kept on.
The appointment of Brendan Fennelly proved disastrous, as did Teddy McCarthy’s, despite the process for appointing managers moved to an outside, two-man committee. It is the same this year, with the selection of Plunkett and Cuddy to search for a new boss.
Brian Allen has said that both Plunkett and Cuddy were brought in as they also had to compile a report into the breakdown between the players and the board, which was best served with neutrals looking into it. That’s understandable, but it does point to a lack of trust between the players and board which the board will have to take steps to rectify. It’s also a worrying state of affairs when there is no one on the board in a position to help Plunkett and Cuddy in their search for a manager. After Laois were in that position in 2011, steps should have been taken to get people with more relevant experience involved at board level.
Their reaction time to the various crises has been slow as well. McCarthy didn’t resign until nearly two months after the hammering against Limerick, despite it being obvious his time at the helm was up. Three months after his resignation and there is still no manager. While it is all well and good to say they have been taking their time, they have possibly been taking a little too much. In 2011, Teddy McCarthy was in place by the end of September, whereas now we are almost into December and the process is ongoing.
McCarthy’s appointment by that date could be used an example of not rushing into anything, but it’s worth remembering that Colin Lynch was almost secured in that time frame too. If the right man is appointed in the end, they they will say they have been justified in their approach. But only if they get it right.
This is where the two parties above will have to come together. The players have expressed a desire for a backroom team comparable with other intercounty setups, but the reality is the finances aren’t there to support it. The players will either have to make their peace with what is available, or else fundraise to bring in more money.
They will point to the setup Justin McNulty has at his disposal with the footballers, but in two years they have played in a Division 2 final, made an All-Ireland quarter-final and taken part in some live televised games. Laois gets money on the back of results like that through sponsorship clauses and other revenue streams, and so can reinvest it in the football setup. Football clubs in the county also raise more money through the county board’s various initiatives throughout the year, so it gives them greater resources for a more modern setup.
In contrast, the hurlers haven’t appeared on TV and are not contesting finals. They haven’t triggered any sponsorship clauses and the clubs raise less money, so the spend on the hurlers is traditionally less. If the players and clubs want that to improve, then it will have to be done by dint of their own hard work, there is no other way. The County Board can’t be expected to take money the footballers could rightly lay claim to and siphon it off to the hurlers. If the shoe was on the other foot, you can be assured there would be a problem.
Having said that, the County Board can certainly do more. For example, and as mentioned above, the senior hurlers have been forced to train with non-match regulation sliotars. That’s a scandalous situation and you can see why a player would start to lose interest when he can’t even train with an O’Neill’s sliotar. It’s certainly hard to see the footballers being sent out to train with soccer balls.
Little things like that make a huge difference, because all of these pieces matter in the greater scheme of things, right down to the sliotars. If Laois GAA aren’t financially capable of delivering the kind of intercounty setup the likes of Kilkenny, Galway or Dublin have, then they have to at least make sure what they do deliver is of the highest standard possible.
Can all of these obstacles be overcome? Of course they can. With the right attitude and commitment to change, anything is possible. But it will be hard, and there will be setbacks along the way. The key from here on out, however, is to keep looking up and commit to rectifying the problems, and not let the setbacks consume the desire to be better. Otherwise, we will be better off accepting the invitation to play in the Christy Ring in 2014 when another season slips by, lost to the same old problems that stalk Laois and push them further into the hurling wilderness.