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'It must be a trait of Kerry men because Micko seemed to have the same ability' - Laois benefit from Kingdom leader

Fergal Byron was on the selection committee that appointed John Sugrue.

Laois manager John Sugrue.
Laois manager John Sugrue.
Image: Laszlo Geczo/INPHO

THE LAST TIME Laois faced Westmeath at Croke Park they had Mick O’Dwyer on the sideline. Fifteen years on, the counties meet at Jones’ Road for the first time since this evening, with the O’Moore men managed by another Kerry native.

That, Fergal Byron hopes, is where the comparisons end as Laois bid to make it back-to-back National League title wins in the Division Three decider.

The Courtwood clubman, goalkeeper on the Laois team that lost to Westmeath in the 2004 Leinster final, led the selection committee which appointed John Sugrue as senior boss 18 months ago, a decision which looks more inspired on every glance.

Despite taking over a team and county at its lowest ebb, Sugrue has returned a double promotion and provincial final appearance during his relatively short reign – successes beyond Laois’ wildest expectations, Byron admits.

Justin McNulty and Fergal Byron Fergal Byron with Justin McNulty during their time together as Laois selector and manager. Source: James Crombie/INPHO

But then ‘Micko’ had a similarly galvanising effect upon his assumption of the Laois post and while inter-county football has changed beyond recognition in the meantime, in terms of its competitiveness, Sugrue’s impact can’t be underestimated, it seems.

“He keeps players happy in a big panel and it must be a trait of Kerry men because Micko seemed to have the same ability to do that when he was around,” Byron tells The42.

“I don’t think you can underestimate the advantage that someone like John has in that respect. Living and operating his business within the county, knowing football and footballers the length and breadth of the county, he didn’t have to get to know players because he knew how to handle them from the go.

“Often times it takes managers a season to get to know the nuances within a squad, but John has a really in-depth knowledge and he had the respect of the players.

“He was highly, highly respected as a physiotherapist when he was with us under Justin McNulty. Lads would go to him for advice, he’s that type of character.

Mick O'Dwyer talks with Ross Munnely Mick O'Dwyer gets a message to Ross Munnelly during his term in charge of Laois. Source: Morgan Treacy/INPHO

“You can’t underestimate how good a man-manager he is. He’s just a clever guy who has the ability to pull people along with him.”

Byron, an All-Star in 2003, was a selector in the aforementioned McNulty’s regime, where Sugrue acted as both physio and part-time trainer.

Based in Portlaoise, locals knew of the Kingdom man’s credentials, given that he coached Kerry’s 2007 All-Ireland winning team under Pat O’Sé.

But the manner of the turnaround in fortunes is striking, as, too, is Sugrue’s honesty, Byron says.

“Laois were in Division Four and everybody thought they shouldn’t be there, yet John didn’t come in and say: ‘listen, I’m going to get you straight out of Division Four’. He said there was a huge rebuilding process to be undertaken and that it may not happen in the first year.

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Stephen Attride lifts the cup Laois captain Stephen Attride raises the Division Four trophy at Croke Park last year. Source: Laszlo Geczo/INPHO

“That may not be what every person interviewing a candidate for a job may want to hear, but what we heard from John was reality, realism and a grounding. He took stock of where Laois football was at that time and it wasn’t just about bouncing back out of Division Four, it was about building out of it.

“Last year was successful in terms of winning Division Four and getting to a Leinster final which was probably more successful than anyone would have expected it to be.

“We were vying for a place in the Supers 8s. Ultimately we came up short, but we were coming from Division Four and you won’t see too many teams from Division Four competing at that level.”

The next step was, thus, to try and maintain their upwardly mobile curve in the form of third tier promotion, something they achieved despite defeats to rivals Louth and Westmeath along the way.

Yet, in the midst of some difficult games, the overall objective was achieved with Sugrue simultaneously building panel depth. A regional-style county championship last winter, which the manager oversaw, gave club players – and coaches, who were placed in charge of respective sides – a chance to impress Sugrue, with Byron sensing the benefits it’s had.

Fergal Byron with Brian McDonald Fergal Byron and Brian McDonald watch on in despair as Westmeath lift the Leinster title in 2004. Source: INPHO

Indeed, such has been the squad turnovers in the 15 years since their Leinster final meeting, Laois’ Ross Munnelly is the only player set for involvement today who experienced that epic tussle, which was settled after a replay.

The second of three consecutive final appearances for Laois, the sting of that defeat, which saw the O’Moore County dethroned, hasn’t eased much for Byron, although a win this evening may console the hurt temporarily.

But, in many ways, this is only the first half of a battle which will spill into the championship, where the two sides again meet in the opening round.

The stakes, Byron says, will be much higher in May, considering promotion is already assured for both teams. Not that he’d say no to a double.

Gavan Casey and Ryan Bailey are joined by Bernard Jackman to look back on a thrilling weekend of European rugby on the latest episode of The42 Rugby Weekly:


Source: The42 Rugby Weekly/SoundCloud

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