About two or three years ago, any preview for a Laois intermediate football championship could have been summed condensed into one line - whoever was relegated from the senior championship last year will win the intermediate championship this year.
It had become that simple and that predictable. After Mountmellick went up in 2006, the next four teams to be promoted had all been relegated from senior the year before - Graiguecullen (2007), Ballyroan Abbey (2008), Clonaslee St Manman’s (2009) and Timahoe (2010). Last year the trend was finally broken when Killeshin, who had come from the opposite direction, went on to claim the intermediate crown to cap off a fairytale season for them.
Their promotion came at the expense of Ballyroan Abbey, who will now try at the second attempt to return to where they will feel they belong, the SFC. Ballyroan Abbey have made impressive strides so far under the guidance of Anthony Keating, but this is one of the most even intermediate championships for some time, and they will have a battle on their hands just to make the knockout stages.
They have been placed in Group A along with Emo, Portlaoise and Courtwood. While Ballyroan impressed many by winning the Division 2 title, Emo took most of the county by surprise when they made it to the Division 1 final less than a year after being relegated. Trained by Gerry McGill (see right for details), he has reinvigorated them, and their games against Portlaoise and Ballyroan Abbey in the group stages should be crackers.
Given league form, it is likely to come down to a battle between Ballyroan Abbey and Emo for the IFC outright, but Portlaoise could yet have a major say in where this championship is destined. They were finalists in 2010 and semi-finalists last year, so they are well versed in how to grind out wins in this competition. They finished up fifth in Division 2 but a significant number of the team which will play in the intermediate championship will have gotten some experience with the senior team on their road to success, so league form won’t count for much where they are concerned.
What should make Group A so fascinating also is that whichever one of the triumvirate loses to any of the other, it is more than likely going to finish their interest in the championship, so those games will take on a ‘knock out’ type feel to them.
There is, of course, a fourth team in Group A, Courtwood, but their ambitions are going to be different to those of their group mates. With injury and emigration doing their best to strike them down, just surviving in the IFC will be the key for them. It is going to be a struggle too if their league form is anything to go by, and if the other teams are looking to improve scoring differences, it might not be an easy few months ahead for them.
In Group B, there isn’t really any team that you could say will either definitely finish either top or bottom of the group. Annanough, Ballyfin, Spink and Park-Ratheniska will look around them and all think there are victories to be had in each of their games. Annanough are the only team out of the four to have made it to the knockout stages last year, but with John Scully nursing what appears to be a serious ankle injury, it robs them of perhaps their best player.
They are not a high scoring side either, but they did show last year that they could turn in a performance when they really needed it, such as their last group game against Ballyroan Abbey. Killeshin needed a last-gasp point to beat them in the semi-final too, so while numbers may be tight, they know how to get the best out of themselves when they need to.
Park-Ratheniska haven’t really kicked on as many thought they would after they came up from the JFC in 2006. They have had one final appearance since then, in 2008 against Ballyroan Abbey, but the loss of some players hasn’t helped them since.
They are set to welcome back twins Mark and Kieran Delaney though, which puts them in the unusual position of actually welcoming player rather than waving goodbye. They have also been boosted by the arrival of John Sugrue, who was a member of the South Kerry team which won Kerry SFC titles in 2004, 2005, 2006 and 2009. Now in his thirties, he is still a serious operater at midfield, and with the club trying to bring thorugh some young players, his experience will be massive for them.
Ballyfin had a disappointing league and with injury worries over two of their main players, Ricky Quillinan and Jason Horan, it will make their opening games that bit more difficult for them. James Finn, with a year of Laois training under his belt, may be shy of match practice but the experience will have made him a better footballer, and he will have to carry his fair share of responsibility for them when play gets underway.
That leaves Spink, who in many ways have nothing to lose ahead of the new season as they are in their first year up from junior. After Ballinakill withdrew their football team and the players moved over en masse to Spink it was always likely they would get to this stage, but they will have to push on from here now and avoid a swift return. Damien Carter will be their main threat in attack, while Seamus Dwyer, captain for the year, will form a formidable first line of defence at centre back.
On the balance of things though, the likely winners should come from Group A. Emo are probably the slightest of favourites given their performances in Division 1, but the injury to Mick Lawlor is a big blow for them. He is still playing some top class football, but his absence will at least be offset by the return of Darren Strong from county duty.
Ballyroan Abbey have to factor in that Scott Conroy is commuting from the UK, but the meeting between the two in the group stages will tell a lot. Either team, along with Portlaoise, look the most likely winners ahead of an intriguing IFC campaign.