PREVIEW - Road to redemption starts here as Laois footballers begin life in Division 4

Rory Delaney

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Rory Delaney

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rory@leinsterexpress.ie

PREVIEW - Road to redemption starts here as Laois footballers begin life in Division 4

Donie Kingston has rejoined the panel, but is likely to miss the opening rounds as he works his way up to fitness.

After successive relegations, the Laois senior footballers will begin the process of rebuilding their reputation this Saturday night, as they start their Division 4 campaign against Limerick.

For many Laois supporters, only promotion will constitute a successful league campaign, and on the face of it, Laois should be good enough to book their place back in Division 3.

However, if the recent past has thought us anything in Laois, it is to ignore what the majority of people think should happen. Everybody thought we'd survive comfortably in Division 3 last year too, but that's not how it played out.

With John Sugrue having stepped into the breach after Peter Creedon's tenure lasted just one year, there is renewed optimism around the squad which naturally comes with the appointment of a new manager.

However, we must refrain from viewing the appointment of a new manager as a panacea for the many maladies which have affected the Laois senior footballers.

While ability is never in doubt, the squad's reaction to adversity last year has cast a long shadow. Winning positions were forfeited far too easily, as they seemed gripped in a fatalistic streak which rendered them unable to break the cycle which so many of their games undertook.

It has been interesting to observe how Sugrue has gone about his business thus far, notably holding trials and giving a huge amount of players exposure to this level of football.

It was pretty much how you would go about picking an underage development squad - invite anyone who thinks they're good enough to come along and see if they can make the grade. The established players were all subjected to the process, just as the new players were. It sent an early message, whether intended or not, that things were starting from scratch, and you had to prove how much you wanted to pull on a Laois jersey.

The down side, if there is one, is that so many players have been used over the last few months, that the prospect of a settled team taking to the field against Limerick on Saturday night seems unlikely.

Expectations will be high for the game, but it could be Round 3 or 4 before we start to see some cohesion and fluidity come into Laois' play. Expectations, in fact, will be high for every game Laois play, and of the eight teams in the Division, Laois will probably have to deal with the highest level of expectation from their supporters.

Division 4, however, is by no means an easy place to play football, and while it is obviously the lowest rung of the league ladder, it still has a few pitfalls into which a complacent team could easily find themselves.

Antrim, for a start, have beaten Laois in their last two competitive encounters - last year's league game and the 2015 clash between the sides in the Qualifiers. And in spite of that, Laois will still be viewed as favourites. It is a title we should assume with the utmost contempt, because it has not served us well in the past.

Wicklow, who could have beaten Laois in the All-Ireland Qualifiers last year, have welcomed Johnny Evans into the fold as their new manager, a wily campaigner who could well extract a greater performance level out of a side which was only three points behind Laois at the final whistle in Aughrim last year.

Carlow are currently buoyed by an uncharacteristic bout of sustained interest from their best players. Turlough O'Brien has united the county, and their two wins in the Qualifiers last year has galvanised the county. They have had no defections from the panel over the winter, and the logical next step for them is to move up to Division 4.

Waterford are dangerous on their day, Leitrim likewise, while London and Limerick are hard to predict. Laois stand out as a figurative big fish in a small pond, but there are plenty of sharks in the water they must be wary of.

The biggest challenge facing John Sugrue isn't necessarily plotting a course out of the Division, it is piecing together a fractured pyshce amongst the players. Devoid of confidence and belief, there needs to be more steel added to the potential style, and the early signs are good.

The players are delighted with his appointment, so the onus turns to them to reward his decision to throw his lot in and try to develop them.

His comments after the second O'Byrne Cup game were telling as well. While the players all might like him, he offers no indication that he isn't prepared to speak bluntly to the panel, regardless of seniority.

“A lot of the most positive fellas so far are the newcomers as far as I’m concerned. They’ve shown a real freshness and a real appetite for this thing and they really want to play for Laois. So a lot of the newcomers are looking good at the moment for us.” Those were his words after the loss to Westmeath in their second O'Byrne Cup meeting, and the message was clear - he was looking for freshness and appetite.

Donie Kingston's return is a significant boost, and considering the scoring form he produced over last year, if he can replicate that in 2018 then Sugrue has something to build on.

The real areas of concern last year were in defence, where tackling, marking and tracking were all poor. Discipline was another major stumbling block, and it too was well-documented over the course of the season.

If Laois can defend better, then that would be the first tangible evidence of progress. The intangibles - attitude, appetite, desire, confidence - will have to be improved too, but getting themselves organised on the field and playing good football should go a long way to improving all of those.

Laois head into this League as favourites, but promotion should not be seen as the only yardstick by which to assess their success. If, by league's end, they are a more cohesive, defensively sound and confident team, then that is the most important thing. If promotion were not to come until 2019 but they put down decent foundations this year, then it would be a trade off worth making.

The players will, obviously, want to win the league, that being the natural inclination for any competitively minded sportsman. The reality, however, is that for now, success will not be measured in silverware.