In the end, there could be few complaints. Laois had their chances to stay up, even had the benefit of an unprecedented five games at home, but just couldn’t find their feet at this level. They tried hard, the players were committed and focussed, but ultimately that wasn’t good enough.
Laois are a hard-working side, but this league campaign showed that hard graft isn’t sufficient against the top sides in the country. They are currently lacking that bit of guile or craft, call it what you will, to take a step up in levels, and the end of this league throws up the unpopular but relevant question; can this Laois team develop that side to their game?
Justin McNulty’s side have repeatedly been called a defensive team, but this isn’t strictly true. They drop players back, as do most senior intercounty teams at the moment, but they do not defend particularly well. They still conceded far too many scoring opportunities, and were it not for some inspired performances from Eoin Culliton, they could easily have seen another five or six goals scored against them over the seven games.
The problems in defence aren’t limited to those on the field either, and the county could be on the verge of a defensive crisis ahead of the championship. Mark Timmons was forced off with an injury during Sunday’s defeat to Down. Laois introduced Damien O’Connor, a forward, as his replacement, with Darren Strong moving from wing-forward to corner-back in the re-shuffle.
Of the ten outfield players listed on the match program, only three were defenders (Jamie Kavanagh, Colm Munnelly and Liam Kealy), all three of which the management felt were not up to the task of replacing Timmons. If the Graiguecullen man does not recover in time for the Longford game, and Laois were to pick up another injury, there could be major problems.
At the other end, Laois’ success rate in front of goal has been very disappointing, particularly in the last two games. Part of this is due to the lack of numbers in attack, but there are other factors as well. On Sunday, too many shots which were not realistic scoring opportunites were taken on. When Laois hit nine wides in the first half of the game against Down, a worrying majority of them were either from angles or distances which are not conducive to scoring. At least Laois know this is a specific problem and can work to fix it, but they only have about four weeks to do it.
Another worry for Laois, however, is that they do not perform well under pressure. This isn’t limited either to this year or this management team, but it’s something this group of players have grappled with for a while. In attack in particular, the problems are highlighted that bit more.
Of the five games Laois lost, when they were being put under the most pressure, they failed to manage more than ten scores in four of the games. The other, the loss to Kerry, Laois scored 1-13 but hit as many wides. It was much the same last year, and the year before, so the most worrying thing is that the trend is continuing.
Padraig Clancy was transformed from a midfielder into a full-forward this year and the early signs were positive, as he played well against Mayo and Donegal, causing plenty of problems for both sides when he the ball was delivered up to him. The problems have arisen when the ball hasn’t been played up in time, or else when the passes just aren’t good enough.
To make the most of his talents, Laois need to be flying the ball all the way to him in front of the opposition goal, not have him chasing a dropping ball 20 or 30 yards from where he needs to be, or racing into the corners. Clancy is reliant on the service of others, and that hasn’t been good enough. He is also reliant on receiving support once he has the ball, and that too is another aspect Laois need to work on.
That is part of the craft and guile Laois need to develop, the side of their game that allows them to do something more constructive with the ball than they currently manage. They need only look at Down to see what can be achieved with a bit more purpose and direction. Benny Coulter gave an exhibition in using the ball intelligently and economically. That’s what Laois need to learn how to do, and quickly.
If they can do that, it can only lead to better things. If they can’t, then it only leads to more of the same.