In 2003, the pairing of Armagh and Laois in the All-Ireland series was an exciting prospect. Led by Kieran McGeeney, Armagh were the most complete team in the country while Laois, under Mick O’Dwyer’s stewardship, were finally beginning to build on the foundations laid by their all-conquering minor sides of the mid-1990s.
Sadly, tomorrow’s game is a much less attractive affair…
Of course, the scheduling of the game doesn’t help matters. With throw-in at O’Moore Park fixed for 3.30pm, the match will conflict with both the Republic of Ireland’s crunch tie against Belgium at Euro 2016 and the second instalment of what is proving to be an inspiring Irish rugby story in South Africa.
Whilst the GAA have always prided themselves on a community-based ethos, it is alarming how the association have risked the wrath of one little county so often within the space of a month.
Before the Laois game, only Stephen Cluxton had played a Championship game for Dublin outside of Croke Park. Amidst much clamour, the Leinster Council correctly overlooked the financial incentives in favour of the communal benefits of sending Dublin out into the world.
However, instead of fixing the game for O’Moore Park, a potential boon for the local community, both sets of fans were forced to travel to Kilkenny, the outpost of Gaelic football in the province. The move ultimately backfired, with many outraged Laois fans boycotting the game. Meanwhile, the plentiful Dublin support were back on the road after the final whistle as those attending the Cat Laugh’s Comedy Festival had snapped up most of the rooms in the city.
You’d have thought that following the Nowlan Park fiasco the GAA would be mindful to ensure that Laois GAA did not get another raw deal this season. In deeming O’Moore Park to be a suitable venue for tomorrow’s game, sentiments to that effect were no doubt uttered. But, in pitching the All-Ireland first-round qualifier against one of the biggest sporting events of the year, the GAA have shown exactly where Laois and Armagh rank at HQ. I can’t imagine Dublin being put in the same position.
Nevertheless, an intriguing afternoon awaits those who resist the excitement surrounding Martin O’Neill’s side in France.
While Armagh’s season has already been tarnished by their relegation to Division 3 in the Allianz Football League and their subsequent capitulation to Cavan in the Ulster Championship, the Orchard County will be keen to respond to a wave of criticism that has come their way in recent weeks.
According to Joe Brolly the blame lies firmly at McGeeney’s door, but amidst rumours of disharmony several of Armagh’s leading lights have come out in support of the All-Ireland-winning captain of 2002. Indeed, such comments would not be forthcoming had they not players capable of reaching a higher and better quality standard of football.
McGeeney has rung the changes this weekend. Paul Courtney, James Morgan, Ciaran O’Hanlon, Gavin McParland, Colm Watters and the injured Ethan Rafferty all make way for Patrick Morrison, Shea Heffron, Joe McElroy, Aaron Findon, Michael McKenna and Niall Grimley. Crucially, though, Ciarán McKeever and Stefan Campbell remain and will pose the greatest threat to Laois’ hopes.
With two goals conceded inside six minutes and down to 14 men before the break, Laois were on the cusp of a slaughter at the hands of Dublin in Nowlan Park two weeks ago. However, the midlanders proved to be capable of mixing it with the All-Ireland champions. Although Dublin may have taken their foot off the gas in the second period, when Ross Munnelly followed up Stephen Attride’s fine goal, a nervous energy permeated through the Dublin support.
While they might have been surprised, the Laois faithful were less so. The county has always produced fine footballers and this current crop is no different. Frustratingly for Mick Lillis the year has been hampered by injuries but gradually some of those afflicted have started to return, while the introduction of Anthony Cunningham to the set-up has added some much needed freshness. Laois will just have to hope that it hasn’t come too late.
Following their impressive cameos at Nowlan Park, both Kevin Meaney and Niall Donoher start for Laois. Encouragingly, Kieran Lillis (son of Mick) returns to the fold following a broken foot, while David Conway comes in for Evan O’Carroll. Paul Cotter, Gary Walsh and John O’Loughlin (suspended) also miss out.
Laois: Graham Brody; Stephen Attride, Mark Timmons, Damien O’Connor; Darren Strong, Kieran Lillis, Gareth Dillon; Brendan Quigley, Kevin Meaney; Niall Donoher, Paul Cahillane, Colm Begley; Conor Meredith, Donal Kingston (captain), David Conway.
Armagh: Patrick Morrison; Shea Heffron, Brendan Donaghy, Mark Shields; Joe Mc Elroy, Ciaran Mc Keever (captain), Andy Mallon; Charlie Vernon, Aaron Findon; Tony Kernan, Rory Grugan, Aidan Forker; Miceal Mc Kenna, Stefan Campbell, Niall Grimley.