The following has been reproduced with Pat’s permission from his wonderful 2008 book “Hungry Hill”.
When I played with Laois, despite good runs and great always the underdog. In many sports that would have been my lot, but, because of the unique structures of the GAA, I experienced the total opposite end of the spectrum when I played with the Town.
Our club was founded in 1887 and in over a century of competition, I had the privilege of playing through its most successful era in both hurling and football. Many people in Laois likened the Town football team of that era at club level to the great Kerry team at county level. We enjoyed unprecedented success and developed an air of invincibility. We also played an attractive, open brand of football with lots of flair and skill. Spectators enjoyed watching us play.
Whenever I played football for the Town, I never felt we were going to lose, no matter who we opposed or how bad the game situation looked. It must have been what it was like to play with the Kilkenny hurlers of any era or the Offaly hurlers or Meath footballers of the 80s and 90s. Just like with those teams, if we were behind coming down the wire, there was a palpable apprehension in the opposing team and in their supporters that we would come back. And back we came on most occasions. This wasn’t cockiness but a massive self belief which grew stronger over the years. It came from The fact that we had very talented team with players of the calibre of Colm Browne, Eamonn ‘Atchie’ Whelan and of course Tom ‘Curly’ Pendergast. Yet there are many teams with talented players. It takes more than that.
We prepared extremely well. Training was hard and focused. Some supporters over those years would complain ‘Jaysus, Portaoise don’t know how to celebrate a County Final win . If that were us, we’d be in a session for a fortnight‘. Some years we were back training the Tuesday night after a County Final. We were focused on wining Leinsters and All Irelands. The County Final was a stepping stone.
It was this ambition and focus that gave the Town such success in the Leinster Championships and should have delivered a few more All Irelands. We had great talent, were focused and ambitious, played well as a team, but it was that mental strength and self belief that was the key factor in our success. Just as would be the case with Cork, Kerry or Kilkenny at inter county level, people began saying ‘The Town have the tradition.‘
You must nurture and develop tradition over years. The Town’s tradition of winning Leinsters began in 1972. I don’t remember the games but do remember the team bringing the County Final Cup to our Primary School. Brian Delaney’s face looked down on us from the cage ‘You won’t feel it until you’re up here yourselves. You’re u/12s run but the years go very quickly.‘ They were the first Portlaoise team to win the Leinster and were beaten away to Bellaghy by a single point in the All Ireland semi final.
I do remember 1976. Dad was a selector with Teddy Fennelly, Larry Dunne and John Fennell. Bill Phelan was the trainer. We went with Did to all the games. They didn’t have a team to play Ballylinan in the first league game in St. Fintan’s Hospital grounds. Dad went back to the hill for Billy Bohan and Jimmy Bergin. A team was scraped up and the Town beat Ballylinan. The next defeat that year was at the hands of a mighty Austin Stacks team in an All Ireland semi final at O’Moore Park. There were thirty six on the panel that day! Stacks had John O Keeffe and Dinny Long at midfield and Dad told me afterwards, that the Kerry mentors sent in the word after fifteen minutes, ‘Break the ball‘ It was a great compliment to the fielding ability of Atchie and Mick Dooley.
The tradition continued and was developed. We were told that the Town never lose County Finals. We were told that the Town never lose replays. We believed it! In all the years I played with the Town footballers, we never lost a County Final. Whenever a game finished level, as soon as we got to the dressing room Bill Phelan would remind us, ‘Remember lads, The Town never lose replays!‘ Immediately we were in a positive mood for the replay. We won replays against Portarlington in a county semi final, Ballyroan in a county final, St. Malachy’s and Summerhill in the Leinster Championships, Baltinglass and Parnells in Leinster Finals. The only replay I can ever remember losing was against St. Vincents in the Leinster championship. I don’t remember much of it though because I was knocked out with a blow to the head and was taken off.
The first Summerhill game was away. When we arrived, we saw where the goalposts had been taken up and replanted some fifteen yards in to reduce the size of the pitch. They obviously reckoned they’d have a better chance of beating us on a tight pitch. I played on Mick Lyons at midfield and reckoned that his play was more important to Summerhill than mine was to Portlaoise. I set out to negate his impact, to ‘dog’ him. Unlike postmen, Mick wasn’t too much afraid of dogs. I rarely if ever got my name taken but had it taken along with Mick in both those games. Noel ‘Nodsy’ Pendergast snatched a late equaliser for us in Summerhill. The Town didn’t lose replays and won the second game easily in O’Moore Park on a regular sized pitch. The two Leinster Final games against the Kevin O’Brien led Baltinglass were classics. We were steeped to draw the first day with the benefit of a controversial point. Supporters, even neutral supporters raved about these games.
Apart from never losing county finals and replays, we could never be written off in any game no matter how bad the situation looked. We won so many games in the final quarter. There was always the composure, confidence and self belief. The game that most demonstrated this quality was against Navan O’Mahony’s in O’Moore Park.
We started the game cold and stayed cold right up to half time. Eleven points down against as formidable an opposition as O’Mahony’s seemed to be the end of the road. We received an almighty bollicking in the dressing room. I don’t know which forehead was redder, Bill Phelan’s or Jazz Reilly’s. Yet as we assembled to leave for the second half, it was emphasized that there was to be no panic going for goals ‘Raise the tempo, get stuck in, but no panic! Play our own game, no ballooning balls into the goalmouthl! Work it in! Work it in! Keep popping the points!‘
We stormed back into the game after the restart, popping the points, eating into their lead. Yet with ten minutes remaining, it still looked beyond us. Georgie Phelan broke through and crashed the ball to the net. Now it was Navan O’Mahony’s who panicked ballooning the ball aimlessly out of defence. They lost their composure. We came back at them in waves, score after score. There would only be one winner now!
There was a great sense in the club championships those years of representing the county, of putting Laois on the football map. Eire Og did the same for Carlow in more recent times. A number of years ago, I spoke to the ticket master at Portarlington railway station as I waited for a train to the west. ‘They were great years, Pat, when ye’re team were on the go. I supported my own Port to the last but when Portlaoise won the county final, I looked forward to following ye in the Leinster Championship. There were great games. It kept us going till Christmas!‘.
Laois weren’t winning Leinsters let alone All Irelands. But when supporters from Laois followed Portlaoise in the club championships, they went with confidence and optimism as well as the prospect of a good quality game. They were especially delighted when we beat Dublin or Meath opposition because Laois rarely got a win over them at inter county level, When we beat Ballymum Kickams or Parnells, in their minds we were beating the Dubs.
While the highlight of playing with the Town hurlers was winning that first County Final in 1981, the highlight with the footballers was winning the All Ireland final in 1983. A number of years ago, John Hanniffy got Cheddar and myself tickets to the Irish Nationwide Croke Park corporate box for the club finals. It was certainly an experience. I felt very proud of the GAA and the stadium, one of the finest in the world. We enjoyed the day, wined and dined, the comfort. Yet we would never watch Laois or Portlaoise from there. A few years later, in 2005, we were down with our supporters watching the Town in their first All Ireland final since 1983. We were close to our supporters, close to our team, close to the game. In 1983 Tullamore was waterlogged so the final was switched to Cloughjordan. It was a far cry from the magnificence of modern day Croke Park, yet it is a venue that will always be remembered in the annals of the club’s history. It is still the only senior All Ireland football title ever won by the county.
The winning of the All Ireland was beating a Jimmy Barry Murphy led St. Finbarr’s Cork side in the semi final at Portarlington. I was picked to play centre forward on the Cork centre back Christy Ryan. Dad and Bill Phelan didn’t always see eye to eye but, on this occasion they were united on their reading of the game. They pulled me aside and told me not to try to play a regular centre forward on Christy ‘Pull him out of the middle! Drag him all over the field!‘ I did what I was asked, feeling comfortable in that role. If Christy didn’t follow me, I could read the game well in possession, had good vision and could give good ball to set up attacks. If he did, I could run all day and wear him out. It worked well that day. St. Finbarr’s had a goal disallowed, Gerry Browne hit the match winning point and we were through to the All Ireland Final. Close game, tight finish, composure, mental strength!
A week before the final, Laois hurlers were fixed to play Antrim in the National League at Casement Park. We needed to win to gain promotion. John Bohan and I were selected to play. The club were adamant that we weren’t to play for fear of injury. I always felt that once I gave everything for the team in training and the games, whatever the game, I was fully committed to that team. I never shirked training. As a dual player there were going to be some games and training sessions that I just couldn’t make. You can’t be in two places at the same time. But whenever I was available to play, I played. I met John Bohan ‘What are you going to do Pat?‘ ‘I’m playing anyway John.‘ ‘So am I‘. It happened to be the only comfortable win we ever had over Antrim in Casement. We hit them with a barrage of goals in the first half and with the two points in the bag, Georgie Leahy substituted us both at half time.
We beat Clanna Gael from Roscommon rather easily in the final. It wasn’t an epic game. We didn’t play to our best but won on a weird score, twelve points to two goals. One of their goals was a penalty. Liam Scully lifted the All Ireland Cup for the Town. We felt sorry for Clan na Gael, they had lost four All Ireland finals. They had a fine team but couldn’t win finals. The Town knew how to win finals.
There was great euphoria after the win but it was different to Rathdowney two years earlier when we won the hurling. Whatever about the supporters, I think the players felt a sense of mission accomplished. It wasn’t like ‘I never thought I’d see the day‘. It was more like ‘This is what this team should be doing, winning All Irelands.‘ In fact whenever I meet any of the lads now and we talk back about that time, they will all say that it was great to win the All Ireland but that team should have won three or four All Irelands.
We won more Leinster titles but never another All Ireland. The Town broke the record for Leinster titles when beating Parnells in 1987. You can look back on a one point loss to a Matt O’Connor led Walsh Island, kicking Raheens off the field but also kicking twenty wides and losing to an injury time goal to Ferbane when a Brendan Lowry shot was brilliantly saved by Mick Mulhall only for the rebound to be planted. Three more finals. Three narrow losses. The tally could well have been eight. It was a little ironic that it was I, a Town man, who coached Eire Og to equal the record in 1999. Bobby Miller had led them to four titles before that.
I stood on the bank in Tullamore to support the present Town team in the Leinster Championship against Rhode in 2004. As I waited for the start, I looked proudly in the programme, at the record of the Town in Leinster. Between 1971 and 1987 the Town played 35 games, winning 26, drawing 5 and losing 4. Only once in 1984 did the club fail to reach the Leinster final, having won the County Championship.
Ian Fitzgerald, Colm ‘Wooly’ Parkinson, Kevin Fitzpatrick, Brian ‘Bruno’ McCormack and the lads got a run on Rhode and blitzed them. They went on to win the Leinster title beating Skryne of Meath in the final and put the Town back on the top of the roll of honour.
The ‘Doc’ Fitzpatrick sang the ‘Portlaoise Queen’ from the platform in Newbridge as the players hoisted the cup. I remembered back on those great games and wins, many on that very pitch. As I stood there beside Sean O’Reilly, who was supporting then and was still supporting, I felt a surge of nostalgia and pride that the Town still knew how to win finals, how to win Leinsters and the tradition continued.