So, here we go again. The proper football season is almost upon us once more, as Laois get ready to welcome Armagh to O’Moore Park this Saturday night.
After a season of two halves last year, Laois must now offer definitive proof that they are more like the team that finished 2012 than the one that started it. A disastrous league campaign and opening round championship defeat to Longford had football supporters in the county seething, with many questioning Justin McNulty’s long-term future in the job.
When Laois finally got back into action, they did something that they hadn’t done in almost a year - started winning games. First a scrappy affair against Carlow, then an impressive win over Monaghan. With faith being restored, Laois went on to beat Leitrim and Meath, before putting in a gutsy display against Dublin in the All-Ireland quarter-final.
What impressed most following Laois last year was the resolve in the players. Both they and the manager took a lot of criticism, but came out the right side of it, hinting at better things to come. They had found form. Now they must find consistency.
As it stands, there are promising signs around the squad at the moment. There is more competition for places and a better balance about the team than there was in 2012, particularly in defence. As was stated in these pages after the league last year, Laois were in dire need of reinforcements. Laois only had three defenders listed in the substitutes against Down in the final league game last year, and none of them were brought on when Mark Timmons got injured.
Now, however, there aren’t too many who could claim to be a certain starter in the back line. Padraig McMahon, who returned midway through last year, has a full pre-season under his belt. Robbie Kehoe is also involved, while Mark Timmons is back to full fitness too. Denis Booth has also returned to the squad to add competition to the full-back line, and Ciaran Booth, last year’s full-back on the U-21 team, is also involved. When you add in the players who were already there - John O’Loughlin, Conor Boyle, Kieran Lillis, Cahir Healy, Kevin Meaney and Darren Strong, it doesn’t make selection an easy job for Justin McNulty.
One of the more interesting aspects of the back line will be to see who McNulty and his management team opt for at full-back. Kevin Meaney and Kieran Lillis are the most recent occupants of the position, while Mark Timmons is also an excellent option if he can find some respite from injury. Denis Booth can also play there and impressed during the O’Byrne Cup. Of all the options, Meaney is the least defensively minded but possibly the most likely to start there.
His placement in the full-back is a loss for Laois futher out the field, where his zealous work rate and superb fielding make him an ideal candidate for midfield. Laois aren’t flush with options in the middle of the field, where Brendan Quigley and Colm Begley are the two obvious candidates.
In attack, the return of Donie Kingston is a boost if he can rediscover the form that made him one of the most feared young footballers in the country. He took last year off from intercounty football, concentrating on the Sigerson Cup with UCD and then spending the summer in America. It remains to be seen whether the break has done him any good or harm, but there is no doubting his ability. If he can ally that to enthusiasm and work rate then Laois are on to a winner. In the last few years, Kingston hasn’t looked like a player who was enjoying being on the field, but hopefully that can change this year.
His team mate from minor level, Conor Meredith, is also involved after his time in Australia finally came to an end last year. It may take him a bit of time to get up to speed at this level after so long away from intercounty football, but he is viable option for a place in the starting team.
Like in the back line, there is competition for places in attack too, with Colm Kelly, Ross Munnelly, Padraig Clancy, Gary Walsh, Billy Sheehan and Damian O’Connor all still involved.
Laois’ ambitions should undoubtedly be to return to Division 1, as champions if possible. What would be really nice to see would be Laois assuming their place at the top of the league, because they should be there too. Of the eight teams in the Division, they are the only side to have made it to the quarter-finals of last year’s championship.
Galway are the bookies favourites for promotion (odds below. Laois are 10/3) despite only finishing third in this league in 2012 and being knocked out of the qualifiers by Antrim. It seems a bizarre decision but it shouldn’t mask the fact that Laois should be favourites to go back to Division 1, their recent form having earned them that right.
They must play consistently to earn it, but Laois are in a position Laois teams don’t often find themsleves. There is an expectation of success from the outside the group, but also, more importantly, from the inside too. It’s not about development or anything like that anymore, it’s about performing. This is the third season this group has been playing together under Justin McNulty, and there can’t be any more excuses, only expectations, and the joy or disappointment that comes with them.