The phone rang on a Wednesday morning. A proposition came from the other end of the line. The Laois senior hurlers needed a new manager, and while all of the calls up to now had been about the search, this one was about a conclusion. Seamas Plunkett had, with Paul Cuddy, been on an exhaustive search to find a replacement for Teddy McCarthy, but his quest ended with the simplest and toughest question of the process so far - would he manage the Laois senior hurlers?
It has been a little over two months since that phone call was made, and the fortunes of the county’s senior hurlers have slowly but surely pulled back from their downward curve. A team with a reputation for bowed heads now have reason to look up.
When he was first asked to take over the county’s senior hurlers, it would be nice to think it was an immediate and resounding ‘Yes’ from Seamas Plunkett to come to Laois’ rescue. The reality was different, because there was much to consider. As manager of the minor hurling team, he was planning for 2013 with them, taking steps to ensure the next wave of Laois hurlers to try their hand at senior level were as well-equipped as they could be.
His interest in the senior management extended to finding a manager, not becoming one. With Paul Cuddy he had drawn up an initial shortlist of close to 70 names of potential managers, whittled it down to 20, and then approached all of them. It was thorough but unsuccessful, and the incoming chairman Gerry Kavanagh felt the man leading the search should be the answer rather than the one asking questions.
When Kavanagh asked him to consider taking over the job himself, there was much to weigh up. To do the job to the best of his ability, he knew how much time would be involved, and it would be a delicate balance with his work commitments with Comreg, the communications regulation authority. There was the job he was doing with the minors too, where he had put in a huge amount of work over the last three years. Anyone who saw one of his minor teams in action could see the players respected him and played in the mould of their manager, and the thought of leaving them in the lurch didn’t rest easily with him.
But things eventually started to fall into place. He found a balance with work, and then Pat Critchley agreed to come on board to replace him as minor manager. The stage was being set, and once Plunkett was confirmed as the new manager, he set about putting his backroom team in place. Paul Cuddy was brought in as a selector, and Damien Culliton followed. Ger Cunningham agreed to join as a coach, and NADA were recruited for fitness and conditioning.
He had to act quickly, but everything came together in a short space of time. As he looks back on those hectic early days of his term, even in those high-pressure situations Plunkett was clear on the type of people he wanted to join him. “When I was putting together the management team I wanted people involved who were fully committed to the Laois hurling team and who would bring additional knowledge and know-how to the team” says Plunkett.
“Paul Cuddy and Damien Culleton gave their best to Laois over a number of years and nothing has changed with that now that they are involved in the management side. I have clear plans in the way we will play the game and I can never understand how players would give away possession cheaply when it is so difficult to win it in the first place. Because of that I was delighted when Ger Cunningham came on board, and we all share similar philosophies on the way we want the team to play.”
After a delay of nearly three months, Laois finally had a management team for 2013. Now they had to make up for lost time.
With the back room team appointed, they needed players to work with. In typical Plunkett style, no stone was left unturned when he set about assembling his panel. “I must have sat down with over 80 potential panellists around the county. Some couldn’t join because of personal reasons and some have long term injuries, but in the main I think that everyone with the potential to play intercounty hurling is involved with the panel.
“This is very healthy and even at this stage there is going to be some really genuine competition for places, and I am looking forward to the longer evenings when we will be able to play more flowing hurling, and seeing those players proving on the training field that they have the credentials to claim and keep a first team spot and to do the job for the team in the games.
As is widely known now, Laois were quickly put on a six-times-a-week training regime to shake the rust out of players left idle for almost the entire winter. It was done out of necessity, but in its own way it was an early test for the players too. They were being physically and mentally tested from Day One, and it was a way of telling them that this was what was expected.
With Laois’ reputation over the last couple of years, and the perceived lack of effort or interest among the players, many viewed it as a risky strategy. For Plunkett, that thought never entered his mind, because he knew there was real character amongst the players he would now be working with. “I know these hurlers and I have huge belief in their ability to perform at the competitive end of hurling. But the players also need to have confidence in us, in our methods and in what we are trying to achieve as a group.
“I intend to put in place the right conditions for Laois senior players to take ownership of improving their performance and in that I am looking for honesty of effort in each player and an awareness of the privilege of wearing your county jersey. Though it is early days so far I am very encouraged with what I see and I have no doubt that a changed Laois mind-set will drive improved hurling performance.”
Part of that change in the way the players think about the game will be to getting them to set goals that Plunkett feels is their right as hurlers and competitors to set themselves. “My long term goal is to continue to build for Laois to become a competitive force in hurling again. I see no reason why any Laois player should not have the same expectations as any Offaly, Dublin or Wexford hurler.
“There is as much hurling tradition in Laois as in any of those counties and along with putting in place the right methods in which players will have confidence, I will be striving to harness that tradition and convert it into a team performance.”
So far, so good. The players have been enthusiastic in their response to Plunkett and his management team, and he too is delighted with how they have reacted to what he is trying to do. “I must say that I am greatly enthused by the efforts put in by the entire panel so far. Though we might have started very late with regard to our fitness preparations, we will not be using that as a crutch and we certainly have made up some ground already.
“Last week we played Carlow in a practice game and whereas it was patently obvious that they had a lot of work done, and already played a number of challenge games, we were still battling it out at the end. We all recognize that there is still some way to go to getting to peak fitness and hurling form but I also know that when we get there we will be a changed team and I intend that we will close this gap as quickly as possible.
“But everyone’s expectations will have to be tempered with the reality of where we are. It will take incredibly hard work to get to where we want to be. We have commenced that hard work but it will take some time to blend everything into a competitive hardnosed team.”
When the weeks were passing by in October and November of last year with no sign of a manager being appointed, Laois senior hurling was on life support. Depending who you talked to, the prognosis was not good. Nobody wanted the job. Would the players even come back. The county board didn’t know what they were doing. Laois should drop down to the Christy Ring. Laois should give up. Pull the plug.
It seemed preposterous at the time that Laois would have goals or expectations for this year. It’s amazing sometimes how quickly things can change. Seamas Plunkett knows that any team worth its salt is fuelled by ambition, amongst other things.
So he knows that, even if his team are starting later than everyone else, and expectations had fallen to an all-time low, he still wants his team to win the league this year. “My immediate priority is to win Division 2 of the League and get back up to Division 1B. Laois needs to raise its ambition levels for its county team but we will only achieve improved performances by playing teams above us.
“We all know that the pace and physicality of the hurling increases significantly as you move up divisions and the intensity of the hurling played now in Division 1A is almost at championship pace. Unless we have those ambitions to want to challenge ourselves against the top counties we will simply stand still and not improve as a hurling county.
“My involvement with the panel over the last few weeks has certainly taught me that there are a group of players here who are hungry to improve and make the necessary sacrifices that will drive them to play in higher divisions. What is also encouraging is that I know there are players at U-21 and minor level and below who also have the right attitudes to preparing to win for their county team.”
And it is that desire to do better and aim higher that is at the crux of Plunkett’s management style and his philosophy. He demands that his players show desire, show determination, and ultimately, show pride in where they are from.
Throughout his time with the Laois minors, he spoke of wanting to foster a Laois identity. He wanted the players to show it, the management to show it, but also the supporters. He wanted people to encourage and support the effort his players put in, and for everyone to share in the fruits of what was reaped by that effort.
As senior manager, he is more intent than ever to encourage that ethos amongst both his players and the supporters. “Another area that we all need to address is greater clarity on what it means to play senior hurling for Laois - what is the Laois hurling identity. I feel that recently we have lost a little of the togetherness and spirit that comes with the Laois hurling team.
“Only when we have this will we be fully prepared to consistently battle out results. We all know that this is needed most on tough days when things are going against you and you need to hold your nerve. When the team has built up that spirit and trust we will get the fighting performances that will dig out results out of impossible situations.
“We have some work to do to get this family spirit back and in this I am looking forward to also fostering a better connection with Laois hurling supporters.”
It all sounds very ambitious, but ambitious goals only get realised with hard work, and Plunkett is under no illusions about the task facing him and everyone who commits to the setup. “There is no doubt about it that it is a tough challenge but I’m really looking forward to it. All of us on the management team will be giving this our heart and soul and we intend to make a difference.
“It is also great to know that Pat Critchley with the minors and Tony Doran with the U-21s are putting in similar hard work. I feel we are on the right track but we have got to press on and keep improving if we are to achieve our goal of becoming a competitive force in hurling again.”
The journey begins this weekend.