The Laois SFC kicks back into life this weekend, as the 16 senior football clubs around the county put the combined efforts of the last seven months into what, for some, will be the most crucial 60 minutes of the year.
While no championship is won in the first round, those that clear the first hurdle are safe from relegation for another year. With more teams likely to be in the running for relegation rather than the actual SFC title, it places that bit more emphasis on the first round.
Portlaoise are red hot favourites once again this year, and it will be a massive upset if they are beaten at any stage in the championship. They are the milestone for everyone else, but the problem for the majority of the other teams in the championship is that they are many miles behind.
The only teams that could consider themselves to be close are Arles-Kilcruise and probably Graiguecullen, although Graiguecullen have yet to really prove themselves in the championship.
Arles-Kilcruise have been the thorn in Portlaoise’s side for their last two SFC wins, causing them plenty of problems in both finals, but eventually coming up just short. They are likely to be in the mix once again this year but the sun is beginning to set for some of this team, with Chris and Padge Conway now well into their thirties. They might not get too many more chances to win an SFC title, and they will fight tooth and nail to bridge the gap with Portlaoise.
Portlaoise’s greatest strength, of course, is the depth to their panel. Few clubs in the county could afford to miss five or six regulars and hope to be competitive, but Portlaoise can do so and still expect to win the title.
During the earlier rounds of ACFL Division 1 this year, they enjoyed a five point victory over their nearest challengers, Graiguecullen, missing the following players; Cahir Healy, Kieran Lillis, Conor Boyle, Tommy and Barry Fitzgerald, Aidan Fennelly, Brian Mulligan, Paul Cahillane, Eoin Bland, Ian Fitzgerald, Craig Rogers, Colm Byrne, Malachy McNulty and Stuart Nerney. That’s a list of 14 players who have played significant parts in recent championship successes, without factoring in Zach Tuohy, so the challenge facing the other clubs in dethroing them is a stark one indeed.
Portlaoise should, and most likely will, claim a record setting fifth SFC title in a row, and this crop will rightfully take their place amongst the pantheon of great teams the club has produced. Cetainly, they can be ranked alongside the team which claimed six SFC titles and an All-Ireland crown between 1981 and 1987, with most of this panel having claimed five SFC titles, two Leinster titles and one All-Ireland final appearance over the last seven years.
At the other end of the scale, things should bunch up a bit tighter. The early favourites for relegation are Clonaslee St Manman’s, currently ravaged by injury, suspension and emigration. They have had to turn to one of their current players, former Laois goalkeeper Conor Gorman, to act as manager for the upcoming SFC.
With so many seasoned players missing, it’s hard to see them surviving as they place their faith in a number of the younger players coming through the club.
What could motivate them, however, is that any club only needs to win one game during the season to be assured of avoiding the drop. To that end, a number of teams will have to be careful, namely The Rock, Emo and Mountmellick, who were poor last year, and Portarlington, who were rooted to the bottom of ACFL Division 1 throughout this year.
Most of the other teams are in something of a limbo, most likely too good to be relegated, but not good enough to progress to a semi-final or a final. In truth, many of these teams are probably closer to relegation than they are to challenging for an SFC title.
That’s a grim statement, but this championship really needs a team to take it by the scruff of the neck, cause a bit of stir or rattle a few cages, whatever clich you prefer. Will anyone do it? Probably not. Portlaoise to make it five in a row.
See this week’s Leinster Express for a club by club breakdown of the Senior Football Championship and a breakdown of this weekend’s games