Big Match Preview - Laois looking for the performance of a lifetime against Dublin

Rory Delaney

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Rory Delaney

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rory@leinsterexpress.ie

Big Match Preview - Laois looking for the performance of a lifetime against Dublin

John O'Loughlin brushes aside Dermot Connolly when the teams met in Nowlan Park. Pic: Alf Harvey.

A Laois team on a ten-game winning streak will pit themselves against Dublin in the Leinster SFC final this Sunday.

If there's one thing we didn't expect to be writing about Laois football in 2018, then the above sentence is probably it. A remarkable turnaround in fortunes has seen Laois rewarded with a first Leinster final appearance since 2007, as they assume the roll of underdog against the Dublin winning machine.

To try and assess the game and look for positives for Laois could be seen as a futile endeavour.

This Dublin side are already the most successful the province has ever seen, with their seven titles in a row from 2011 to 2017 eclipsing the six-in-a-rows won by Dublin, Wexford and Kildare teams at various times between the mid 1910s and the late 1930s.

In the last six years, the closest they have come to losing a game in Leinster was a seven point victory over Meath in the 2013 Leinster final.

To stand against the most successful side the province of Leinster has ever produced is a daunting prospect, and even more so when there appears to be no end in sight to their dominance.

Looking for a fourth All-Ireland title in a row, the Leinster championship has proven to be little more than warm up for them in recent years, and the results would testify to that.

In the last six years, the closest they have come to losing a game in Leinster was a seven point victory over Meath in the 2013 Leinster final.

They have played 17 games since then, and have won 16 of them by ten points or more. Laois, a tiny county with a Division 4 title the only achievement of note in a decade, appear little more than cannon fodder.

The cliché at this point is to refer to the game as a David vs Goliath clash, but that does a disservice to both David and Goliath. The gulf is a lot wider than that.

So, is there any real point in Laois turning up on Sunday, other than for pride's sake? Well, of course there is, because this is sport, and believing that anything could happen is cause enough to hope that it will.

Laois' run up to the final isn't exactly textbook. They have played two Division 3 teams and one Division 4 team to get here, and now face an enormous jump in quality.

The jump in quality shouldn't be that big a suprise to Laois though, because they have played Dublin regularly enough over the last few years, and are well aware of what is ahead of them. Laois are considerably fitter now than they have been for the last five or six years too, which is going to be crucial this weekend, and they have strength from the bench on top of that.

The Carlow game will have been a useful test as well. They had to be patient, tactically vigilant and economical with possession when it came their way, and they will need all of those traits to come to the fore again if they are to have any hope of upsetting Dublin.

The loss of Stephen Attride will be keenly felt, with his athleticism, tenacity and skill exactly what you are looking for in a defender you'd be sending out to play against Dublin.

The loss of Stephen Attride will be keenly felt, with his athleticism, tenacity and skill exactly what you are looking for in a defender you'd be sending out to play against Dublin. How Laois opt to replace him will be interesting. On the bench, David Holland is a natural corner-back but inexperienced at this level, while Denis Booth is experienced but not a natural corner-back.

The most likely move will see Damien O'Connor either move to corner-back, or possibly wing-back with Trevor Collins moving into the corner, and the one of Benny Carroll or Evan O'Carroll coming into the forward line.

It's a tough decision to make and one which doesn't leave much room for error against the most potent attack in the game.

At midfield, Laois have been boosted this year by the excellent form of both John O'Loughlin and Kieran Lillis, but they will need to take their games to another level on Sunday. Michael Dara McAuley is a former 'Footballer of the Year' winner, and you'd have to imagine Bryan Fenton will win that accolade at least once in his career too, so it's a massive task.

O'Loughlin and Lillis both have a huge appetite for work, but the speed and dynamism of the Dublin midfield is a potent force, and it will make life very difficult for the Laois pairing.

Laois are, for the most part, an athletic and mobile side now, and that gives them some hope against Dublin, however remote it is. Dublin are incredibly fit and well-conditioned, and they attack at speed.

Throwing all your men behind the ball and trying to play defensively isn't really going to work, because Dublin will figure you out fairly quickly and score anyway.

Being fit and agile enough to track runners and get forward yourself to make sure Dublin's focus is shifted from one end of the field to the other is the best way to go about it.

How Laois do attack will be interesting to see, because in Donie Kingston, they have a totemic figure who will attract a lot of attention from the Dublin rearguard. Dublin are not above cynicism, and they will do whatever it takes to put the Arles-Killeen man off his game, so he has to be mentally prepared for what will be a long 70 minutes.

Kingston's size and strength gives Laois an option for a quick, long ball into the full-forward line, and if he has appropriate support around him then it's a tactic that could bear fruit. You'd back Kingston to hold his own against anyone when he's having a good day, and with Philly McMahon likely to be detailed a man-marking job on him, it'll be a right old tussle between them.

The goalkeeping narrative will be one to watch too, as Cluxton's participation hangs in the balance, while Graham Brody will gallop around Croke Park at every opportunity. Over the course of his career, Cluxton redefined what a goalkeeper could bring to a football team, and in his own way, Graham Brody is doing likewise with his forays around the field, helping to build attacks from deep in Laois territory.

Cluxton's influence on this Dublin team is considerable, so if he misses the game, Laois would be naive not to try rattle his replacement, Evan Comerford, early on. By the same token, it's unlikely Graham Brody's sojourns will pass without action from Dublin either.

Laois have done a fine job this year of responding to whatever pattern the game they are playing takes on. They have rolled with punches and landed knockout blows themsevles when they needed to, as showcased against Wexford and Westmeath, when they were under the cosh at times, but had enough composure to settle down and formulate a response.

Over the course of his career, Cluxton redefined what a goalkeeper could bring to a football team

In their Division 4 campaign, they did what they needed to do to win each game without being particularly flashy or dominant. An early blitz on Carlow in the final got them ahead and they managed the game from there, and against Wexford, left with a ten point half-time deficit, they responded and got a win.

Against both Westmeath and Carlow they again managed both games really well, for the most part, so the question put to them now is whether they can do that against top-class opposition.

In all likelihood, and as hard as this is to admit, they probably won't. However, the belief is strong in this side, and they are buoyed by a streak of ten wins in a row. Nobody expected Stradbally to beat Portlaoise in 2016, Liverpool to beat Milan in 2005, Leicester to win the Premier League or Ali to beat Liston.

Big shocks are rare, but one thing for sure with this Laois team is that they will do everything in their power to make the impossible possible. Dublin will be respected but they will be analysed and probed for whatever weaknesses might be there, and if Laois can turn in the performance of their lives, they will write their names into folklore.

Nobody expects Laois to win on Sunday, which won't harm their preparations one bit either. If they avoid an early Dublin blitz, then that will be the first job accomplished in an unlikely bid for glory.

From there, we'll happily take our chances, and hope that the Gods are smiling down on us.