Seamus ‘Cheddar’ Plunkett needs no introduction to Gaels in Portlaoise, Laois and throughout the hurling world. He was a tough, uncompromising player for Portlaoise and Laois in the 70’s, 80’s and 90’s and won multiple championships. After his playing days finished he, to use his own expression, ‘morphed’ into a hurling coach and his passion, organisational skills, work ethic and honesty mark him out as a top quality manager and coach. He trained his beloved Portlaoise to a county championship in 1998 and led them all the way to an unlikely Leinster final appearance. Nowadays we know him as the inspirational manager of Laois senior hurlers. His efforts with Laois in recent years have seen the blue and white compete admirably and who will forget a couple of epic championship tussles with Galway as well as that long awaited and long overdue victory over the old enemy Offaly. We took a trip down memory lane with Cheddar.
Early memories of club: It’s the 60’s team winning championships and as kids we’d be going up to see them train and early heroes would have been Pascal, Teddy, the Rake and lads like that…it would have been mainly football but there was also hurling and the likes of Brian Delaney – they had a decent enough hurling team and were beaten in a county final a few years before in 1960. One of the first influences in hurling, outside my family, was Pat Walsh, whose uncle was Fr. Matt Walsh who was President of the club for a long number of years. He taught in Portlaoise Primary school. I remember him starting off a tournament for third or fourth class and we just happened to win it. He’d have us hurling in the yard at break time and we’d be hurling with boards. We didn’t even have proper hurleys at the time. We had Br Beausang and Br Somers with U12 teams. Then Bill Phelan coming on and looking after things from U14 through to U16. In those years we were probably a bit more orientated towards football. But there was a love of the club and you just moved up through the ages and it becomes a vocation for life really. You’re wedded to one club and you stay with it and that’s it.
Where did your love of hurling come from? It would have been at home. My mum is a Kilkenny woman and was a Kilkenny camogie player and my dad is a Cork man so there would always have been great gallery around All-Ireland Final time and there would always be a focus on hurling when those days came around.
Portlaoise hurling was bleak in the early 70’s but something started to stir in late 70’s. Could you see bright days ahead then? I don’t think anyone would have seen a bright future in those years. Obviously a lot of young players had come through a good skills system with Br Somers and Br Beausang and later on Br Paddy Kelly…so a lot of people had developed good technical skills even though they were playing a lot of other games at the same time. There was a good base there and a lot of people came around the same age. Then people like Tom Lalor taking over the team and things were better organised. The arrival of Jimmy Doyle was the icing on the cake. So principally it was driven by the underage development in the early ‘70s through the Christian Brothers. Winning an U21 in 1976 or so was also important and a good batch of players came through from that. But the real glue that brought it all together was Jimmy Doyle and Tom Lalor coming together as a coaching team.
Greatest memories with Portlaoise: Winning the first final was fantastic but I suppose the one that stands out most. A great memory but in another way was losing the Leinster Club final in 1987 when we really should have walked away with it. We had a great chance of winning an All-Ireland, we had beaten all the other teams that were involved around that time in challenge matches and I just felt we had a great team. After losing that we lost our way a bit, even though we won a few championships it was never the same after that. We never got back to that level of preparation and performance again.
Best players played with: John Taylor was an incredible player, a super hurler he played on all the best hurlers in the country at the time and he’d simply wipe them away. A really great player to play with.
My friend Zoom was an tremendous player, John and Billy Bohane and players like that and even up to recent with players like Tommy Fitzgerald, Joe Phelan and Cahir and I’m looking forward to Maka (Ciaran McEvoy) improving over the next couple of years. But the best player I ever played with is probably not one that people might come up with first. That was Jimmy Harding. A very understated player, technically a very gifted player. At different times against all the big teams when we were in trouble Jimmy Harding was the man who put the finger in the dam and neutralised great players in a very quiet effective manner. And he was probably one of the better Portlaoise footballers as well. There were others too … the likes of Jimmy Keenan was the heart and soul of the team, Joe Keenan, Matty Keegan, Liam and Paul Bergin … the list goes on as I was lucky enough to play with many really great players and I’m slow to name them as I’m leaving so many out. With Laois, PJ Cuddy was one of the best full forwards in the country, a great goal-scorer.
Toughest Opponent: An awful lot of them (smiling). Hurling was tough back then. I wouldn’t like to single out anybody but just generally hurling was more physical and tougher back then.
Regrets: I have one massive regret that I didn’t dedicate my life to hurling particularly from my teenage years. It was probably dominated by football and I just didn’t do enough to develop my own skill level and I regret that to this day. Even at adult level I felt I had to make myself the fittest and maybe the strongest player on the team just to make up for a skillset that other people had that I didn’t have. I blame not having enough coaching right through my teenage years up to minor and I regretted that right throughout my hurling career. Does that influence you as a coach? Definitely. It informs me as a coach and even more-so now as hurling is all about pace and precision at the minute, and skill and touch. And if your touch is not up to speed now at inter county level you won’t survive. That is definitely driven by my own experience. You probably never find that out until you go up to inter county level where the biggest difference is that you have less time on the ball. The more skilful you are the more time you are going to have on the ball and it’s when you play at that level you really find out that no matter how fit, strong or aggressive you are if you don’t have the skills you are at a serious disadvantage.
What do you admire in a player: Ambition to succeed. The hunger of a player to improve themselves and succeed is what I like most.
What frustrates you in a player: Lack of ambition to be great and to make something of themselves.
What motivates you to put the time you do into coaching? It’s the love of the game number one. And it’s a love of your county and a love of your club. That drives you to try and improve things.
Fondest coaching memories: I suppose at club level winning the county championship in 1998. We also won an U21 championship. Even though I am involved with the county I absolutely accept that club comes first and county comes second. That’s just the nature of things and the way the GAA is built. At county level the games against Galway you know it was really special to be a Laoisman on the sideline in O Moore Park on those occasions. And last year against Offaly, even though we didn’t make a breakthrough or anything, but to see the performance from players that had worked so hard get a big win for the county gave great satisfaction. More than anything else just looking at young lads and putting structures in place and seeing young Laois hurlers being able to compete with the best county teams and the best county players. There were 10 or 11 Laois players playing in the Fitzgibbon Cup this year and that’s a huge change and those are the things that give satisfaction.
Who was the best hurler you ever saw: I suppose because of our own affinity with Jimmy Doyle he was probably my favourite – an incredible stickman and an incredible player. What does the club mean to you: I think that’s the most important question to be honest with you. Of all the things about the GAA I think what your club should mean most to you is your sense of belonging to your local place. With club you are playing for your family, the people around your street and that’s the most important thing in the GAA and I wouldn’t ever like to see us losing that. My club colours are important to me, the history of my club is important to me and the fact that Portlaoise was a strong hurling club in the early years, before becoming stronger at football, and I have some great memories of some of the older people who have since passed away and how fondly they spoke about Laois hurling in the 40s and early 50’s when they competed so well with Kilkenny and all of those great teams. So it’s this sense of place that’s most important and really the actual sport is only something on top of that really.
Aspirations for the club: I would like to see hurling becoming very strong in the club again and when I say that I don’t mean at the expense of football. In the ‘80s we were winning championships in both on a regular basis and there’s no reason why we can’t do it again. I would also like to see the club more integrated in the community of Portlaoise even more-so than it is at the minute and I think that’s important for the club.