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port' up for a Dublin storm

IF there's a map of Ireland in the Portlaoise clubhouse in Rathleague (and we don't know if there is), it's not hard to imagine the house darts permanently lodged in that part depicting Dublin.

Or voodoo pins.

By virtue of a seemingly permanent headlock on the Laois championship, comparable only in recent history to Crossmaglen's death-grip in Armagh, Sunday is the start of their eighth AIB Leinster club campaign in succession

They've won one provincial title in the seven previous attempts.

But, more to the point, they've been beaten by Dublin teams in five of the six botched operations.

"There's no point in pretending it hasn't happened. It has happened," says their manager, Tommy Conroy, straight-up.

"But I think that's more a case of …realistically … okay, it was the Dublin champions.

"But that's because they are probably four or five teams capable of winning the Dublin championship and the Dublin championship is very strong.

"So everyone knows, if you're going to win a Leinster, the chances are you're going to have beat the Dublin champions."

And as Conroy points out, it hasn't always been thus.

In 2004, during his last stint as Portlaoise senior football manager, the club beat Kilmacud Crokes in Dr Cullen Park in a Leinster semi-final, a milestone on the road to an All-Ireland final wherein they lost to Ballina Stephenites.

Conroy himself played on the province-conquering Portlaoise team of 1987 who account for, amongst others, Parnell's along the way.

And, as he explains: "The old team would have turned over the Dublin All-Ireland teams of (Tony) Hanahoe and (Jimmy) Keaveney and those …that's 30 years ago.

"But what I'm saying is, yes, we have some history of being able to beat them. The recent history isn't as good.

"But you have to keep banging on the door."

And bang they shall.


Because while Conroy might not fully admit it, the Laois championship has long since ceased to become a major achievement for Portlaoise, more a means to a tantalising end.

Which is why mass devastation is the only accurate description for the Ground Zero that was the Portlaoise dressing-room and its inhabitants last December 9th when they went down by 3-12 to 3-9 to St Vincent's in Tullamore in the Leinster final.

As since departed manager, Mick Lillis said then: "This is all about winning. There is nothing else matters a damn. I would rather win by three flukey goals. There is no consolation."

Lillis, who will assume control of the Laois minor team in 2015, was equally blunt prior to the match when he stressed: "When we don't come through Leinster the underlying emotion, without a shadow of a doubt, is one of dejection and disappointment."

All of which doesn't sound like a particularly sunny spot from which to begin a new term as manager with those same desolated players.

But Conroy wasn't perturbed.

"Okay, people might say winning a Laois championship is no big deal. And it's not comparable to winning a Dublin championship because of all the games you have to play."

Indeed, those who were there will regale how Portlaoise were only ever at half mast in their county semi-final win over O'Dempsey's (six points) and their final victory over Arles Killeen (11).

"But to win championships does take obviously a fair amount of self-motivation," Conroy counters.

"And for these lads, football is the main thing for them, outside of family or whatever. That's how they express themselves and where they get a kick out of it.

"So it's not a huge job trying to motivate them."

So maybe it's best that they take on the Dublin beast first up.

And not just any city species either in St Vincent's.

Portlaoise's recent tale of capital dejection includes two beatings (2007 and last year) by Vincent's who both times went on to win the All-Ireland club title.

If you're going to bury your demons, you may as well take on the biggest, baddest one.

"I don't have to go into manager-speak," says Conroy, understandably enough.

"Basically, Vincent's are All-Ireland champions. They retained the Dublin title.

"Outside of their county lads, they have lots of good players.

"They are a very good team. So for us, it's a huge challenge. And we're going to have to play way better than we have done for the last couple of years."

Naturally, Conroy was at the Dublin county final on a scouting job and left with his already lofty opinion of Diarmuid Connolly enhanced.

"Early on he was brilliant, carrying the ball into tackles and releasing other fellas," he recalls.


"He's got great awareness. I mean ... I don't know ... I was amazed this year when I heard he was only getting his first Allstar.

"I mean, it's incredible. Surely…I would have thought he was nearly the best footballer in the country.

"Connolly can do it every way. He can get scores, he can go back, he can pick up the ball. He seems to be pretty much an all-rounder."

"We would have known," Conroy adds, "having lost to them in last year's Leinster final, that Gavin Burke (pictured, left) is a phenomenal player.

"(Shane) Carthy as well; they're very mobile and very comfortable on the ball. And the constant movement and rotation of the forwards.

"They're all natural scorers. I mean, they just have such a range. Their wing-backs are very good at getting forward.

"And they have really sticky inside backs. It's almost everything you want in the modern game.

"You couldn't ask for a better spread of abilities in the way you'd like to play the game.

"So they were very impressive on the night. They should have won the county final, realistically, 10 points wouldn't have been overly generous."

All of which means that if Conroy is to lead Portlaoise out of their current Dublin rut on Sunday, they'll have taken the most perilous route.