Donie Kingston leaving the field after Laois lost to Kildare this year. Pic: Denis Byrne.
After the debacle that was the 2017 Laois senior football season, there has been much talk since on where exactly Laois go from here.
It's a fair question, and there are a myriad of different answers. Many expect Laois to get promoted from Division 4 next year, but that is far from a certainty. Laois have been poor in the league for the last four or five years, so there are no guarantees that will suddenly improve.
The problems facing Laois are not limited to the senior football team though, and they are not going to be solved in the short term either. Football appears to be at an incredibly low ebb in Laois right now, and there are so many areas that need to be addressed, it's almost an overwhelming task to consider them all.
It's even more overwhelming to try consider some solutions, but we've endeavoured to do just that under four separate headings below.
We don't have all the answers, and you definitely won't agree with a lot of what's written below, but serious discussion about football in Laois needs to take place. If this helps some people to start talking, then so be it.
The major problem facing the senior team is that they are an aging side, morale doesn't appear to be good, and after years of underachievement at juvenile level, the quality of player coming through is not what it needs to be.
With the team getting older and retirements in the offing, it is vital that the level of coaching offered to those who are either currently involved, or soon to be involved, with intercounty teams is of the highest possible standard.
The other major problem facing Laois is a decimated support base. Attendance at games has been on a downward curve for probably a decade, and it's hard to see it getting much lower. This leads to a negative atmosphere at games and makes Laois less of an attraction for sponsors.
A report published last year by Leinster GAA made for interesting reading. It was in relation to how money made available to five different county's for the promotion of hurling was being spent. Laois, Antrim, Carlow, Westmeath and Offaly had extra funds made available to them to help promote the game, and report dealt with all of them, bar Antrim.
One of their findings noted that, while all county's involved had the best of intentions, when it came to the hiring of professional personnel (S&C coaches, nutritionists, sports science, etc), there were major shortcomings. Basically, many people on county boards do not deal in High Performance setups, so have no experience of what to look for, or how to assess whether the work being carried out is adequate.
While this was in relation to hurling, it's not a huge leap to suggest the same thing is happening in football. In many cases, a minor, U-21 and senior team will all have their own set of coaches, with no interaction between them, and when the season finishes they have no more dealings with the county.
Hiring a S&C coach to work with all county teams has been suggested before, but is not really feasible, as the workload would be too big. However, the appointment of a High Performance Director is not. If you take it Laois field six intercounty teams (minor, U-21 and senior in hurling and football), that means there are potentially six different sets of coaches all working to their own plan, with no overall guidance involved.
So, if a promising young minor footballer sees his season end in late April or early May, then he will not be subjected to any high performance coaching unless he gets called up to an U-21 panel that November. So for six months of the year, no one is monitoring this potential senior footballer, and he is falling far behind his contemporaries in other county's.
For all the money spent on outside expertise in Laois, and many other county's, the time has come to make sure it is being spent wisely. With one person to oversee the system, they can store information on all players, track their injury records and patterns and the fitness records of players as well, which would be vital information to have. How great would it to be in a position to offer a new manager coming into the job info like that?
If money needs to be saved, there are any number of courses being run in the likes of IT Carlow, Athlone IT, Dublin, Limerick etc with various Sports Science students and graduates looking for work experience. They might not have much real-world experience, but they have the knowledge and, with an expert overseeing their work on behalf of Laois GAA, they could be directed on what needs to be done.
The potential problems with this, outside of the financial cost of hiring someone, is that some managers will want to bring their own personnel with them, while others don't buy into the use of Sports Science. Both offer the potential for roadblocks, but can be navigated.
With regard to re-energising the support base, there is really little the county can do apart from starting to win again. Nothing draws out supporters like the prospect of watching a winning team. It's a fairly simple answer, but it's hard to see what else could work.
While many small county's struggle in terms of finances, Laois have it that bit harder because they are a committed dual county.
Thankfully we have not gone down the road of funneling money only in one direction, but there are huge challenges associated with fielding two teams at senior intercounty level. County team expenses are running at around €650k for the year, and expected to rise.
Getting value for money out of all your management teams is crucial (see above), but so too is raising the money.
Laois have a steady stream of fundraisers throughout the year, but they have gone a little stale and need to be reinvigorated. O'Moore Park is a big earner for Laois, getting income from hosting a variety of games, but there is the potential to make more money from the county grounds.
In terms of administration, the same people have been involved for some time now, with new faces a rarity on the county board. New people bring new ideas and new energy, and it is up to the clubs of Laois to start putting people forward to hold these positions if they are not happy with the performance of the incumbents.
The possibility of selling the naming rights for O'Moore Park and the new Training Centre no doubt have already been looked at, and will hopefully provide a new source of income. The fact Laois gets a handful of televised games during the course of the year, not to mention the routine local and national press coverage of games in O'Moore Park, means it offers a high profile for whoever signs up.
New fundraising ideas need to be explored as well. Offaly GAA ran a golf classic earlier this year with Shane Lowry as a special guest. It continued afterwards at 'An Evening with Shane Lowry', a Q&A with the golfer in a local hotel. It was a huge success and made them a lot of money.
The draw with Lowry for Offaly people is obvious, he's a local star and offered his time for free, but perhaps it still offers Laois a blueprint for expanding their own golf classic. If someone like Paul McGinley or Padraig Harrington could be hired for the day, with a Q&A that night, it offers two revenue sources from the one day. The cost of getting someone of that profile would be the problem, obviously.
Musician Ed Sheeran announced a series of Irish dates recently as well, and among them is a gig at Pearse Stadium in Galway. It is no more impressive a venue than O'Moore Park, and while the cache with Galway is obvious, could Laois look to hold a couple of concerts during the year? Local clubs like Ballyroan Abbey and Clonad have done so with some success.
Holding concerts in O'Moore Park is something the County Board has looked at before, but nothing has come to pass so far. As a venue, with easy road and rail access to the town, minimal residents beside the ground and a potential capacity for 20-30,000 patrons, it could be a big earner for Laois if it could be made to happen.
When it comes to getting new people involved, that's a hard one to rectify. You are relying on people to take on a lot of voluntary work. This is a county-wide search, and any club which is well-run and making progress should consider how they can offer that expertise at a higher level. Ultimately, it will be to their benefit if they do.
THE CLUB SCENE
On the club scene, there are a good few problems facing Laois. Many of the competitions are not competitive enough, no more so than the senior championship, where mere survival is considered a good season for a lot of clubs. Laois GAA have tried to re-structure the championships, but have struggled to get changes agreed to by the clubs.
There is not enough access to senior football for many of the better players in intermediate or junior clubs either.
Another major problem for clubs is physically fielding teams, as player bases seem to be dwindling and the number of games conceded in the leagues this year was worryingly high.
Much like the support base for Laois county teams, the interest appears to be dying off at club level, where getting people to sit on committees is becoming harder and harder.
Finally, another big problem is that some clubs are not being honest with themselves. What are their realistic long-term prospects? So many clubs amalgamate at juvenile level only to stand on their own at adult level, that it makes it harder and harder to maintain an adult club when you're not bringing through enough young players to sustain it.
Full amalgamations have been positive in hurling (Rathdowney-Errill and Borris-Kilcotton spring to mind), but so far there are is little sign of it happening in football.
Laois GAA themselves have acknowledged that 16 teams in the SFC is too much, but have met resistance in trying to change things. A 12 team SFC, or even an eight team one, would be more welcome, and they should continue to try and make this happen.
Outside of that, area or divisional teams should be re-visited with a view to helping players from clubs outside the SFC the chance to play at the highest level. Again, this was proposed in the past but met with little or no reaction from clubs. It needs to be brought back to them again.
Another thing we've spoken about in the past is playing games outside of O'Moore Park. Laois GAA has their reasons for this, and they are hard to argue with. Players get to play on the best pitch in the county, there is ample seating for patrons, and from their point of view, they can keep a better track on the money taken at the gates.
The down side is that O'Moore Park is way too big, the crowd is too dispersed, and games are completely lacking in atmosphere. Maybe all senior games from quater-final forward should be played there, but up to then they could be moved around the county. Places like Stradbally, Timahoe, Portarlington, Crettyard or Park-Ratheniska have good grounds and facilities and by bringing the games around the county, it might engage more supporters and get a bit more buzz around the games.
The structure of the current championship works really well, offering certainty over when you will play. You know from the start of the year when the championship will start, and perhaps just as important, you know when the second round will be as well.
The problem for many is the timing, as it happens too late in the year and a lot of younger players head to America for the summer, because there are no championship games to hang around for.
This is a tough one to rectify, as starting it earlier in the year brings it into conflict with the intercounty season, and means there is uncertainty over when you can actually play games. The current championship structure may not be ideal, but moving it forward to May or June creates as many problems as it solves.
At the moment, one big problem is getting clubs to commit to play in the 'A' grade. This year's U-14 'A' championship has just five teams in it. Five! By comparision, there are 16 teams in the 'B'.
Traditionally strong amalgamated teams like Stradbally Parish Gaels and Killeshin-Crettyard are in the 'B', which is very worrying.
As revealed elsewhere on this website today, 30% of the population in Laois is under the age of 18. Portlaoise is the fifth 'youngest' town in Ireland. Portarlington too has undergone a huge population boost in recent years, and Laois have to make sure they are maximising their resources in these areas.
The juvenile soccer season will now move into direct competition with the GAA season, which will place an extra burden on young players. The rugby season now starts earlier and runs later than it has done in the past too, although there are only two rugby clubs in the county, so the overall impact from this is not massive.
A dedicated committee or working group to ensure GAA is as strong as possible in towns like Portlaoise, Portarlington, Graiguecullen and Mountmellick would be welcome. Laois cannot afford to allow the large population bases to be ignored, and they have to be specifically targeted.
The prospect of splitting the Portlaoise club has long been mooted but never taken seriously.
Portlaoise, obviously, don't want it to happen and there isn't much of an appetite to force it on them either. A full split of the club is unlikely, but what if they split at juvenile level and fielded two separate teams (the river Triogue could be used as marker to split the town in two, and base the catchment area for each 'team' on this), while they still get to play under the Portlaoise crest?
There is an enormous potential player base in Portlaoise that one club cannot be expected to cater for, but if they were split in two at juvenile level, it potentially offers twice as many children the chance to play football.
The figures available suggest this is sustainable. Portlaoise saw its population increase by 9% over the last five years, with slightly over 22,000 people living there now. The numbers attending secondary school in Laois as a whole have jumped by 17%, with much of that down to the massive increase in Portlaoise.
Portlaoise readers are no doubt bristling at the very idea, but Laois as a county needs to consider it. We're in an unprecedentedly bad situation, and we need to consider unprecedented solutions.
Our next suggestion is going to seem utterly ridiculous so bear with us, as it comes from having coached at juvenile level within the county - a mid-summer break. In essence, I would suggest that clubs have only played one championship game before the schools start back, so that no team is out of the championship by the end of August.
I have lost count of the times when, as a coach, I had to field an under-strength team, or struggled to get a team out at all, in the middle of the summer. Holidays, the Gaeltacht, injury, family events (weddings etc) see players taken away in the middle of the championship, and you rarely end up with your best team on the field. Your season is all but over by the time they players go back to school and you have everyone available again.
It seems counter-intuitive not to play games in the summer, but to make the games as competitive as possible, they need to be held when you have all of your team at your disposal.
Many of the U-14 or U-16 leagues will start in March, so maybe they could be pushed back to start later in the year and run through the summer, so if players are missing games it's not the really important ones. To offer more games, a kind of pre-season 'Kelly Cup' type competition could run in March and April. The groupings could be done geographically to make it easier on clubs.
We've covered a lot of ground in the article above, probably too much, but in truth we've only barely scratched the surface too.
You might think all of our suggestions are pure rubbish, that I'm a complete moron and that you have much better solutions than those proposed above. If that is the case, then brilliant. If you care enough to either agree or vehemently oppose anything written above, then at the very least it shows Laois GAA means something to you.
If it does, then use that interest and passion to start a debate, talk to people in your club, talk to anyone who will listen and then go do something.
Despite everything listed above the single biggest threat facing Laois now is apathy. That, as bad as things are, it elicits no reaction from the GAA public and we remain caught in a downward spiral.
We are caught in the grip of extreme apathy at the moment. You only have to look at the attendances at games, the lack of interest in county teams, and the lack of new faces on the county board to see that interest is critically low.
Unless the Laois GAA public mobilises itself into a communal effort to pull us back from the edge of the abyss, then a bleak future awaits us all.