25 Jan 2022

GAA - McNulty hoping to cap off rebuilding process with another Laois SFC title for Portlaoise

GAA - McNulty hoping to cap off rebuilding process with another Laois SFC title for Portlaoise

Portlaoise manager Malachy McNulty

If Malachy McNulty was in the same line of work as Dermot Bannon, his phone would be ringing off the hook.

Dermot likes to restructure things and hope it all works out in the end, but he can't have overseen a restoration as impressive as Malachy McNulty has managed over the last twelve months.

After losing last year's county final to Stradbally, the Portlaoise manager had a tough job on his hands to rouse a team not accustomed to losing. On top of that, as the months passed, the list of absentees grew. Cahir Healy, Craig Rogers, Brian Glynn, Brian Smyth, Stuart Nerney and Paul Cotter have all been unavailable, for one reason or another, over the last year or more.

To lose that level of experience and talent would have sunk most teams, and in truth probably should have sunk Portlaoise, but they are back this year as strong as ever. So, what's the secret?

McNulty, of course, isn't in the business of telling secrets, nor is he in the business of mythologising what has happened this year. There is a simple explanation for everything. "Of that list of players, two or three have been inhibited by injury, and Brian Smyth had a difficult year, with the passing of his mother.

"You just start the year with a clean slate, and try to put as much belief as possible into the new players and hope that they step up if you give them a chance, and they have responded with performances. A few lads now are still waiting to get their chance. They are waiting in the wings, there are three or four lads now in that position, and it is fantastic to have their wealth of experience and talent available to us."

It helped too that the new players to the starting team are as experienced as new players can be. They have been on the fringes of the team for a while, waiting to get called up, and now are taking the opportunity afforded to them. "If you take two of them, David Holland and Ciaran McEvoy, I started working with them four years ago when we won an U-21 together.

"David's only sport is football, but Ciaran is a dual player, at intercounty and club level, and the way it has panned out he has been able to focus on football now, and we tend to get another gear out of him at this time of year.

"With David, there was no doubting his talent, he's pacey, fast and creative as well, and the rhetoric around him was to stick with it, he had to be patient and then he got the chance. It was the same for Gareth Dillon, he wasn't established in the team until he was in his twenties, very few make the step into our senior team as a seventeen or eighteen year old. They usually have to be at it a while, plugging away and putting in the hard yards."

While this Portlaoise team are accustomed to putting in the hard yards, hard times were altogether more rare, at least in Laois. Nine SFC titles in a row was a run of unprecedented success, but that all came to a halt with a dramatic stroke of Jody Dillon's right foot.

If they were looking for motivation for this year, they needed to look no further than that, and McNulty admits that defeat has provided fuel for his side this season. "In management, you take every year on its own merits and prepare as best you can. You might try different things, different tactics or maybe on the social side, different ways to bring the team together.

"That dressing room last year, where you could hear a pin drop after the game, there was guys in that dressing room that had never lost a championship game, they had joined the team during that run, and it was a first experience for a lot of them. There was a shock element to it, it brought us down to earth and shifted perspective a little bit.

"Has it made us hungrier? Yes, is the simple answer. Is it driving us on? On the surface, I would say no, but deep down, I think it is, yes."

So, for Ballylinan, they must beware a wounded Portlaoise. Portlaoise, of course, must beware Ballylinan as well, and McNulty is expecting a tough battle this Sunday. "It's a novel final, there is no doubt about that, and we are expecting to get a tough battle.

"I looked out at the Ballylinan team in the semi-final and saw John Kealy playing for them, and it reminded me of a few hard battles I experienced against Ballylinan in the past. They go about their business well and stick to their game plan, and I foresee a good, honest and open game of football."

SEE ALSO - Gary Walsh hoping Ballylinan 'rise to the occasion' this Sunday

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