Laois senior footballers sojourn through the Qualifiers has brought them to their first All-Ireland SFC quarter-final since 2006, after a wonderful three point win over Meath on Saturday afternoon booked a date with Dublin this weekend.
Laois’ transformation from the side which threw away a six point lead in a demoralising second half against Longford, to where they are now, has been remarkable. There was more direction, determination and incision to Laois in Tullamore on Saturday than there had been in the last two years under Justin McNulty.
Right across the field the players gave everything, and after what seemed like endless tinkering and switching of players and positions, Laois look to finally have found their strongest and most settled starting team. Kevin Meaney may not be at home at full-back, but he has performed well since moving back in there after Kieran Lillis’ injury, while John O’Loughlin has gone from strength to strength at centre-back.
Brendan Quigley and Colm Begley are forming a solid and formidable midfield partnership, and up front, they forward line is finally clicking into gear. Twelve of Laois’ 15 points came from play, and with the confidence now flowing through Justin McNulty’s squad they will feel that anything is possible.
Dublin now await in the All-Ireland quarter-final on Saturday night, and with Pat Gilroy’s team already through to the All-Ireland final in the eyes of some pundits, Laois can come into the game with no pressure on them whatsoever.
They can certainly take confidence from this dismantling of Meath, as they were by far the better side on the day. Playing with the aid of a strong breeze, Laois were nervy in the opening exchanges, with opening the scoring through a Brian Farrell free. Points from Padraig Clancy and Ross Munnelly (two) helped Laois to keep pace with Meath early on, and with just under ten minutes gone the teams were tied at 0-3 apiece.
It was after that when Laois first started to put some distance between themselves and Meath, with Darren Strong’s excellent long-range point getting them up and running. Moments later Brendan Quigley won a kickout and although his shot dropped short, it took a big bounce and made it over the crossbar. Damien O’Connor and Ross Munnelly added further points as Laois moved four clear, as Meath released some of the mounting pressure with a free from Farrell.
It brought little respite, however, as the next score was Laois’ goal. While Ross Munnelly was the scorer from the penalty spot, huge credit must go to Colm Kelly for winning it. When Padraig Clancy’s shot for a point dropped short into David Gallagher’s hands, it looked like a wasted opportunity for Laois. Colm Kelly was quick on the scene though, dispossessing Gallagher and causing panic in the Meath penalty area, with Gallagher forced into fouling him as a result. Munnelly kept his cool and finished low to Gallagher’s right.
Kelly then pointed soon after following a wonderful move started by Cahir Healy in defence, and despite a late exchange of scores, Laois held onto a seven point lead at the break, 1-9 to 0-5.
Meath were really struggling and really needed half time to come to regroup, and most of the 9,000 strong attendance were expecting a backlash from them early in the second half. It didn’t turn out that way though, as it was Laois who upped the ante when play resumed. Within a minute Billy Sheehan was put through on goal only to see his rising shot just clear the crossbar for a point.
Gary Walsh then set up Ross Munnelly for his fourth point before a driving run and point from Padraig Clancy saw Laois hit three points in just over three minutes to move ten clear and leave Meath with a massive task on their hands.
True to their footballing heritage they came back as best they could, but Laois always seemed to have things under control. A string of pointed frees from Brian Farrell had the gap down to six with three minutes to go when a flowing Meath move put Peadar Byrne through and his low drive took a deflection and squeezed past Eoin Culliton for a goal.
Meath had their chances after that, but to Laois’ credit they were limited them to long-range or hopeful efforts, as defiant late defensive spell was enough to seal a place in the All-Ireland quarter-finals and spark scenes of celebration on the O’Connor Park field.
SCORERS – Laois: Ross Munnelly 1-4 (1-0 pen, 0-1 free), MJ Tierney (one free), Colm Kelly (one 45), Padraig Clancy 0-2 each, Damien O’Connor, Billy Sheehan, Colm Begley, Brendan Quigley, Darren Strong 0-1 each; Meath: Brian Farrell 0-9 (all frees), Peadar Byrne 1-0, Eoghan Harrington, Graham Reilly, Mickey Burke 0-1 each
LAOIS: Eoin Culliton; Cahir Healy, Kevin Meaney, Peter O’Leary; Darren Strong, John O’Loughlin, Conor Boyle; Brendan Quigley, Colm Begley; Ross Munnelly, Billy Sheehan, Gary Walsh; Damien O’Connor, Padraig Clancy, Colm Kelly. Subs: David Conway for Walsh (47 mins), MJ Tierney for Kelly (52 mins), Padraig McMahon for Sheehan (57 mins), Paul Cahillane for Conway (63 mins – inj)
MEATH: David Gallagher; Donal Keoghan, Bryan Menton, Mickey Burke; Damien Carroll, Shane McAnarney, Donnacha Tobin; Conor Gillespie, Graham Reilly; Brian Meade, Stephen Bray, Alan Forde; Brian Farrell, Joe Sheridan, Cian Ward. Subs: Peader Byrne for Forde (21 mins), Eoghan Harrington for Keoghan (26 mins), Jamie Queeney for Ward (46 mins), Tom Walsh for Carroll (51 mins), Mark Collins for Gillespie (60 mins)
Referee: Joe McQuillan (Cavan)