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Can Quirke do a Micko?

Tommy Lyons led the Sky Blues into a Laois trap, but this is a very different team facing the O'Moore men

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FOLLOWING THE MAESTRO: Laois manager Mike Quirke talking to his players earlier this season

FOLLOWING THE MAESTRO: Laois manager Mike Quirke talking to his players earlier this season

SPORTSFILE

FOLLOWING THE MAESTRO: Laois manager Mike Quirke talking to his players earlier this season

Two autobiographical recollections of a tumultuous event that has gone down in Laois history, and Dublin infamy.

"There's always a swagger about Dublin teams in Croke Park so if you show them too much respect, they'll destroy you. You've got to be bold and confident, stare them straight in the eye, take them on, make them think, give them headaches, disrupt their pattern and, for God's sake, don't allow Hill 16 to become a factor. In 2003, Laois were perfectly primed to do all of that."

So wrote Mick O'Dwyer in Blessed and Obsessed.

Dessie Farrell had a more jaundiced memory of the build-up to that 2003 Leinster SFC semi-final. The Dublin manager of today was coming back from injury at the time and not included in the match-day panel - but he was alarmed at Tommy Lyons' decision to drastically change a team that had just steamrolled Louth.

"I knew this was complacency at its worst and complained to all who would listen in the run-up to the game," was Farrell's take in Tangled Up in Blue. "For years I had seen how seriously men like Paddy Cullen, Pat O'Neill and even Tommy Carr had treated Mick O'Dwyer. Now smarting from his Leinster final setback with Kildare [in 2002], this was a perfect chance for the astute Kerryman to get one back on Lyons. Dublin walked straight into the trap."

Ambush

Seventeen years have passed since Micko's famous ambush. What was seldom and wonderful back then - Laois hadn't scalped the Dubs in SFC combat since 1981 - is universally perceived as an impossibility today.

Some of that can be blamed on the faltering status of Laois. Most of it is down to Dublin, whose vice-like grip on the Delaney Cup is now accompanied by a monopoly of Sam Maguire.

Those early-to-mid noughties were a very different era - a time of wonderful flux in Leinster but turbulence in the capital. Twelve months after O'Dwyer stunned the Dubs, Páidí Ó Sé parachuted in from the Kingdom to do likewise for Westmeath.

Since then, however, 14 of the last 15 Leinster titles have gone to Dublin. This backdrop explains why they are 1/500 favourites on Sunday when another Kerryman - Mike Quirke - will attempt to mastermind the biggest football coup of modern times.

Think of Cork v Kerry last Sunday and multiply the shock factor by 10.

Incredibly, Quirke is the fifth son of Kerry to manage Laois this millennium. O'Dwyer won his first championship head-to-head against Dublin but lost the next two (in the '05 Leinster final and '06 semi-final) while the same losing fate befell Liam Kearns ('07 Leinster final), Tomás Ó Flatharta ('14 provincial quarter-final) and John Sugrue (2018 Leinster final).

The 18-point chasm two years ago underscores the mammoth task facing a team that only avoided relegation to Division 3 via a spectacular late goal rush against Fermanagh.

Another second-half comeback mission from five down was required in Longford last Sunday. Afterwards, turning his thoughts to Dublin, Quirke admitted: "We know they're one of the greatest teams to ever play the game and as a Kerryman that's a tough thing to say - but they are."

An even tougher thing to utter in this of all weeks.

It wasn't always thus. Declan O'Loughlin has the rare distinction of tasting championship success over Dublin as a Laois player (in '81) and as a selector (in '03).

In the summer of '02 he had accompanied O'Dwyer (then still managing Kildare) to the SFC qualifier between Laois and Meath, who won in an 11-point canter.

To prophesise that here were Leinster champions-in-the-making was to invite ridicule. And yet, just a few months later, O'Dwyer was attending his first Laois session on October 10, and O'Loughlin can recall what he said to the players: "I'll have three or four All-Stars here next year."

He was right? "We had three," O'Loughlin half-agreed. "We probably should have had four, 'Beano' (Brian McDonald) should have got an All-Star. But who else could say that and follow through?"

That Laois squad was full of All-Ireland minor pedigree, but O'Loughlin doubts they would have beaten Dublin or broken a 57-year Leinster famine without their Kerry commander.

"Jesus, I don't think so. I just think he gave them that belief," he explains. "Micko's influence in the dressing-room before games was just incredible. How he could instil confidence in lads and get them up for a game. The auld false teeth used to come out an odd time when he'd be revving them up, but he was just brilliant. If anyone ever asked me what Micko was like, I'd say in the dressing-room there's no one like him."

You could argue the Gods were with O'Dwyer. In losing by two points, 0-16 to 0-14, Dublin hit 16 wides. Laois were also indebted to Fergal Byron for two inspired first-half saves.

You might even claim that they took more psychological energy from the half-time tunnel row. The GAA's then-PRO, Danny Lynch, confirmed they would investigate but added, with a culinary flourish: "My immediate impression is, as they say in the cookery business, that is was more sizzle than steak."

Curiously, O'Dwyer missed it all; as he recalled in his memoir, he had been otherwise engaged "giving a bit of a bollicking to the referee" but "from what I was told, it was pretty nasty for a short time".

He had heard that "someone had given Joe Higgins a clatter which wasn't a good idea as Joe is well able to look after himself", while O'Loughlin, "no shrinking violet himself, was knocked over as he tried to calm things down".

His selector can now laugh at the memory, saying: "It was very easy fall down there!" But these are different times and a very different Dublin.

"It's a professional machine," O'Loughlin declares. "They have everything down to a fine art. Their defence is superb, and their attacking. Rarely do they give up a ball; they complete every pass so perfectly. Hard to see them being beaten, and I did think Kerry had a chance."

He ponders how Westmeath limited the damage to 11 points last Saturday and, on paper, "you'd say that Westmeath were a better team than Laois because they beat us in the league and whatever. Will we get as close as Westmeath? I would hope so."

O'Loughlin was impressed by how Laois "dug deep" against Fermanagh and Longford, but warned: "It's a huge ask to step up against Dublin, at any time. I'm sure Mike will have them revved up. He'll have to, because it's do-or-die, you're out of the championship if you don't.

"The Laois players are new, a lot of them are debutants, but hopefully they'll give a good account of themselves. And Mike Quirke, I believe, is a good, strong man in the dressing-room. We wish them well." They'll need it.


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