Ross Munnelly in action for Laois in Croke Park against Carlow in the Leinster GAA semi-final. Pic: Denis Byrne
Laois gaelic footall legend Ross Munnelly returns to the scene of his biggest win as a Gaelic footballer on Sunday, June 24 and this time he hopes to be part of a team that is aiming to topple All-Ireland Champions.
Laois under Micko Dwyer defeated Kildare in '03 after taking out Dublin in the semi-final. This's year's team is quite differant and not built on minor sucess.
In an extended interview on Newstalk Radio's Off the Ball programme Ross talked to Joe Molloy about his 16 year career with Laois. But he began by talking about being part of a new team.
"From our perspective it's good to be back. It's almost a complete new set of players which is brilliant as well with so many young lads that will experience this. Things are on the up we are progressing in every game that we have played so far this year and we are looking foward to the final now," he said.
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It was put to Ross that 2017 with strife at county board level and on other fronts, that the forward considered his future with Laois at the time.
"I was always going to stay provided the incoming manager wanted me. I always think that when you get past a certain age it has to be right for everybody and has to be a good fit seamlessly for everybody. Once that was right I was delighted to help out in any way that I can," he said.
He said it was great to be back and the return of Laois to a Leinster Final was long overdue. He said the team has given supporters three good championship wins this year something that, he agreed, had not been achieved in a 'long long time'.
"It just goes to show not everything has to be a negative and where we found ourselves at the start of the year we were able to turn into a positive," he said.
He paid tribute to manager John Sugrue for changing things.
"John has come in and done a really good job. He has put a team around him and give confidence to the group and tremedous honesty. John takes his football extremely seriously and he expects everybody else to do so as well. He has a way of blending things together and getting a good mix of training really hard but we have also enjoyed ourselves. There is a bond within the group," he said.
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Ross pointed to banter within the squad as helping create a good atmosphere. While John and his management team take part in this, they are focused on the serious business on the field.
"He has made sure everybody knows there role and is pulling in the right direction. That is crucially important and I think we are seeing the benifit of it now," he said.
The Arles Kilcruise club player says the team has worked 'incredibly hard' all year and come to difficult games despite being in the bottom division of Gaelic Football.
"We started at a very low base in Division 4. We progressed our way through and had some very difficult tasks away to London, at home to Waterford. We were in Dr Cullen Park to progress in the last game of the league against Carlow. They were all difficult games and we came through them. We are where we are on merit," he said.
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Aged 35 and with almost 70 championships games under his belt, Ross was asked if he would not 'see sense, grow up and pack it in'.
"Like anything else, when you are committed to something that you enjoy it is part of what you really like about life. For me playing football has always been a release from other pressures.
"To be in a dressing room with 20 year olds, having a bit of fun and testing myself against them on the field, there is always a new challenge, a new kid on the block who is that bit quicker or is maybe trying to take your jersey who sometimes does take your jersey, that is one of the biggest challenges when you are getting older. That is the real key point as you get older. You have to ask yourself is that a fight I am prepared to sign up to," he said.
He says the loss of the starting jersey was a big motivation.
"When that stage came for me a couple of years ago when I didn't start a couple of games I found myself knuckling down a little bit harder. Starting so long you are always talking to other guys and saying your time will come, take your chance when it is there, it is all about the squad. Then you have to actually live that. For me, in many ways, that is what invigorated me in the last couple of years because I saw it from a completely differant angle and understood what it felt like," he said.
Apart from appreciating what substitutes and panel players experienced, being dropped also gave him insights into managment and their job in managing a squad.
He said the sense of achievement he gets from being part of Laois cannot be copied. But he pointed to
"The most important part of it all is that you are replicating where you come from. That is something that is obviously unique to the GAA. I still play with my own club in Laois even though I've been living in Dublin for the last 10 years. You are always defending your own patch and it has always been important to me to represent Laois. There will come a day when that finishes and someone else comes along but for as long as I can do it and am still making a contribution and am helping the whole thing to move a long then I am more than happy to committ," he said.
As as to how his body is faring at the age of 35, Ross answered in a way that gave insight.
"He mightn't be quiceker but that doesn't mean he'll get there any faster. I hold my own in all the assessments and tests that we do. I've very happy where I am in terms of the feedback that I get," he said.
He said his training preparation has been tailored and he works more with physios to maintain his body. He said he needs to be self-aware about his body to say nimble and flexible. Unless he is injured he does the same training as everybody else which is the same for all in the group.
Ross gave his view of the changed role of forwards in the era of blanket defences.
"In more recent years the things people appreciate may not be a score it may be a run that you make to open a patch of grass that somebody else can come into. It may be showing and collecting a ball and giving it to somebody who has peeled off into space. I think the game has become a little bit more tactical.
"The days of the shootouts where we will try to score more than you were brilliant and really exciting but that is not really the game anymore unless you are playing certain teams. Your approach and manner in which you play the game has to be different. Certainly in Divsion 4 this year I would have realised it is far more important to be really composed on the ball now when you are playing against the blanket defences and posession really is king. It is not worth risking a snap shot you just have to keep recycling until you do the right thing for the team," he said.
As to how Laois will approach Dublin with their record, Ross was asked if it could game that could be won or do Laois need to be more realistic.
"When it comes down to a final and a two horse race anything is possible. We've gone out in Leinster and beaten each of the three teams that have been put in front of us and Dublin is the next team that lies in front of us. We'll be treating Dublin the very same as Carlow in the league final, Wexford, Westmeath and then Carlow again. The journalists will talk about Dublin and give them the credit that they have earned but we will just be focusing on ourself because we are a team that has improved since the first league game this year," he said.
He points to significant improvement in the Leinster Championship after a lucky start.
"We were quite fortunate in many ways to come through the Wexford game. We got caught on the hop early doors. We learned a huge amount about ourselves late on in that game. We came from nine points down at one stage. We were almost put to sleep on the final whistle and then we came back.
"We will be going to Croke Park knowing that we have to work to our own system and believing in ourselves. If we do that we've as good as chance as anyone," he said.
He played tribute to his captain Stephen Attride who suffered a skull fracture in the Carlow semi-final. He also praised Evan O'Carroll who came on as a sub to score the winning point to get to the final after his father passed away just days before the game.
"You can't buy that. Those experiences that you share with people in a dressing room, in many ways, no amount of training can make up for that. Those are incredibly important moments that you share with people that really bond your group.
"The shock for Evan and his family, who were all at the match, for Evan to kick that all important point at the weekend was fantastic for him but also for our group because we saw how much he went through. His committment to us with training and everything was phenomenal. I remember waking into the dressing room thinking this guy is going to play a big part for us on Sunday.
"Stevie also, diving on that ball at the end, where most lads wouldn't put their foot - whatever happens over the next couple of weeks, those kind of things strengthen the group and make you realise that we are all fighting for the one cause here and that is why when you go to Croke Park the next day, that is the type of mentality that we have and it doesn't matter who we are playing because we are improving game on game," he said.
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Ross was a star of the 2003 Laois team that won the Leinster Championship coached by Kerry legend Micko Dwyer. He calls his former coach at the start of every championship season.
"Last year it was the 15th anniversary and I went down to Waterville on the day (of the anniverary). I had lunch with him and Maurice Fitzgerald was there as well.
"I never forget the people that helped me in my career and Micko was the person that gave me my chance. When you are starting off you always remember the people who , I wont say give you confidence but, put you in the position to earn it yourself. Micko showed a tremendous amount of belief in me. It is something that I will never forget.
"We chat on the phone every now and again. It's similar ever time. His memories of games gone by of small incidents in games when we were really pushing back from 03 to 06 is incredible still. He'd talk about refereeing decisions or a ball that hit the post and things like that.
"I always find that after speaking with him I get a buzz from going training because he was just an incredible man and what he did for Laois was fantastic. He still believes we were within touching distance of an All-Ireland," he said.
Ross recalled the 'magical' run under Micko in 2006 when Laois beat All-Ireland Champions Tyrone in the first round of the qualifiers only to loose out to Mayo in a replayed quarter final.
"When you share those moments with people they don't fade. They're powerful. Once you've been there you believe you can get back again," he said.
Ross said Micko's style of training teams suited him.
"I really enjoyed that style of coaching. It worked for me. Don't get me wrong, you miss a pass, you take an extra solo when you shouln't have and he walks by and would have said something and that hurst because you don't like hearing Micko saying you're gone a bit greedy or you should have passed that one or whatever. The next ball I'd have got you'd nearly be soloing toward somebody to give it off. That is the kind of effect that he had," he said.
He said the need to keep practicing was always emphasised by Micko and is a mantra Ross still plays by.
"In essence the basics of the game will never change and haven't change. You got to put the ball over the bar," he said.
Listen back to the interview here