Port's quest to end capital losses
Prophets in their own land keep rising - but can Laois powerhouse take scalp of 'Boden?
Annual high achievers or perennial nearly-men? That is the question/accusation frequently levelled at the footballers of Portlaoise, who face a familiar winter watershed in Tullamore this Sunday.
Topple Ballyboden St Enda's and their critics will be faced with a super-sized serving of humble pie. It would register as a record eighth AIB Leinster club SFC title for the Laois powerhouse - and, we suspect, the sweetest yet of all.
Lose, though, and it will be Groundhog Day for 'the Town', their players forced to endure that familiar 'provincial flops' refrain all over again.
In a nutshell, here's why the current generation are annual high achievers: they recently completed a Laois SFC nine-in-a-row. They are, in a county fiefdom sense, the Crossmaglen of the midlands.
Yet, from those last eight county titles they harvested just one Leinster-winning crop. In that 2009 final they defeated Garrycastle, who had already accounted for Ballyboden.
And the other seven years? One exit to Rhode of Offaly (2008) and six to the Dublin standard-bearers: three times to St Vincent's, once to Kilmacud Crokes, St Brigid's and Ballymun Kickhams.
Contained within was the full gamut of heavy defeats and heartbreakers.
You had two double-digit losses to a goal-hungry Vins, as well as a Leinster final (2013) where they led the Marino men by a point entering the last ten minutes, only to lose by three. They lost the 2012 provincial decider to Ballymun Kickhams by the same margin; their semi-final thriller with Brigid's in 2011 went to extra-time.
Then you had 2010: at home to Kilmacud, they raced seven clear inside 11 minutes thanks to goals from a Paul Cahillane penalty and Tommy Fitzgerald, but added just two more points to lose by three. "They put themselves in a very, very good position," recalls Paddy Carr, then manager of Crokes, "and they just didn't seem to hold it".
Which begs the question why?
"Even when we played them, it was never about the talent," Carr reflects. It was more about wavering focus and discipline when "the heat really came on".
"Sometimes in the past, in the most critical games, they tend to lose their focus. And that can manifest itself sometimes in a kind of lack of discipline, almost to the point where they would be fighting with each other," he suggests.If Portlaoise have addressed these twin issues, then they'll be "all the more formidable".
They have "particularly good forwards", says Carr - a point underlined by their five-goal rout of Longford's Emmet Óg Killoe 12 days ago. And yet, it's only on Sunday that we'll know - for sure - if this year's model is different, more focussed.
"Ballyboden have shown real leadership on the field," says Carr. "Portlaoise are the most formidable team they'll have come up against (in Leinster) in terms of talent, but Portlaoise have to show that.
"The challenge is that next level. They have proven they have the hex over all the other teams in Laois, but they've a big question to answer with regard to that kind of savage hunger that you need to get through these absolute dogfights at this time of the year."
Tommy Conroy knows all about facing Portlaoise: he was a Vincent's selector under Mickey Whelan in 2007, then manager in 2013 and '14.
He recalls talking to new Laois manager Mick Lillis in the aftermath of his Portlaoise team's Leinster final defeat, two years ago, and how it was "heartbreaking for them".
"I don't know if you'd call them unlucky or not, just to come up against teams that have pipped them or got them at the wrong time," says Conroy, recalling an end-to-end 2013 decider that "could have gone either way".
Now the bad news - or maybe motivation - for Portlaoise.
"I fancy 'Boden just slightly," says Conroy, pinpointing what many view as their key strength, defence, but also a formidable midfield and good inside forwards.
"There's just something about them and I think they could go very far."
Like Conroy, Carr highlights the influence of manager Andy McEntee.
"I definitely feel the momentum Ballyboden have is a significant factor," he suggests. "And there is unquestionable leadership throughout the spine of their team, and I think that may just be the deciding factor."