SOSAD Laois Variety Show
In Conversation With:
A word from Stephen Duff
Out of Town with Liam Duggan
Welcome to the May edition of Town Tattler. May has been a very busy month for the club both on and off the pitch. The return to Rathleague was a huge success and we hope to continue this on the pitch when matches return next month. With the addition of a new coffee cart to Rathleague – our members will be able to enjoy catching up with friends or getting their caffeine fix to continue coaching nursery! All in all a great addition to our home and a huge congratulations to all involved. This month we spoke to Niall Rigney for our In Conversation With series – a very powerful interview, one I hope you will enjoy.
SOSAD Laois Variety Show
SOSAD Ireland is a non profit organisation that provides free counselling services to people who are suffering with: Suicidal Ideation, Self Harming, Depression, Stress & Anxiety or If You Simply Need To Talk. A Variety Show happening next Sunday is going help raise vital funds for the Laois branch and Portlaoise GAA is delighted to be taking part. Anna Bergin is a Portlaoise Native who many would know from singing at Mass. She is currently studying Music in Maynooth University. She is an avid musical theatre performer and most recently won the Musical theatre competition in FeisCeoil 2021. She is so excited to be joining with Portlaoise GAA for Sunday’s fundraiser. Mental Health charities are important to her and close to her heart, and she is delighted to partake.
Portlaoise – Laois SFC Champions 1971.This team defeated The Heath in a hard-fought county final on a scoreline of 1-7 to 0-7. They went on to make history by winning the club’s first ever Leinster Championship when they defeated Athlone in Carlow on a scoreline of 2-11 to 2-9.
Portlaoise – Laois SHC Champions 1981.
The team that made the breakthrough to win Portlaoise’s first senior hurling championship since 1943. They defeated Camross by 2-13 to 4-5 on a memorable November afternoon in Rathdowney.
Portlaoise GAA Club wishes to acknowledge the very generous contribution of Hughes Pharmacy on Main Street in helping the club deal with the unprecedented challenges brought on by Covid-19 over the past couple of years.
Jim and Deirdre Murphy (Hughes) have gone above and beyond in providing PPE, sanitisers and other associated products which is much appreciated. Jim and Deirdre are fantastic club people, always helping out in the background with various teams and their four children, Eoin, Niamh, Sinead and Roisin are immersed in the games out in Rathleague.
Thank you Jim and Deirdre, from all your friends in Portlaoise GAA Club.
In Conversation With:
Tell us about the early days...
Growing up in St Brigid’s was just great. We were always on the go, never a dull moment, great neighbours. We were very lucky in that we were in the first row of houses built…number 4. We had the huge bonus of “the field” at our doorstep (now the all-weather leisure centre). We spent all of our time on the field, playing all sports – games of hurling, soccer, football, rugby, running races, tug of war etc. Some years later a 400m running track was built around the field, which then developed our attention towards athletics, very lucky we were indeed.
We lived in that field playing all the sports we could, during the 70’s the street leagues (John Cole leagues) were played here. They were marvellous contests, great battles. If the truth be told, the career of many great Portlaoise and Laois players were started during the John Cole league era. Playing for St Brigid’s was great, it meant something big. We had to beat the posh lads from Newpark or the Dublin Road teams!
What were you like as a juvenile player?
I remember the Féile na Gael in Galway, and we were the Division 2 hurling winners. We had a very good team. Paul Bergin was the star (he scored 2-6 in the final v Lismore of Waterford). I was fairly average back then. I played in all the games but was dropped for the final.
When we got back to the GAA Centre that evening, the team was to parade around the hall with the cup, in their jerseys. I had left my jersey in a car and I remember asking if I could go get it and there was a throwaway comment ‘why do you want it sure you weren’t playing.’ Looking back now I know there was no harm meant at all but at the time I was so upset – and I really think it affected my confidence when I was a juvenile player. It probably just shows how careful we need to be when speaking to kids especially.
I played in a minor hurling final in 1985 at 16 and was taken off. Nervous, poor and very little confidence in my ability. I held onto that comment for a good while to motivate me to show that I was a decent, competitive player. And eventually my confidence grew, and I developed real belief in myself as a player.
What was it like having brothers who played too?
In 1983, my brother Noel was full forward on the winning team on the 3-in-a-row team v Camross in Mountrath. He scored a goal too and he also won a Leinster U/21 hurling title that year v Wexford in Croke Park. So having Noel win those, and bring those medals home to St Brigid’s was a huge influence on me. Noel was a very good player with a great attitude. He was quiet, but very determined if things got heated. He was also a very good rugby player. I often felt he was an easy target for selectors to make changes because he was so quiet in himself. Pity.
Who were your heroes growing up?
Watching the town win those championships from ‘81 to ‘84 was huge for me, it gave me a love of hurling and a desire to want to win a senior title myself playing in the green and white of Portlaoise. All of those players were brilliant, they were the back-bone of a very good Laois team in that era, so they were my heroes, without doubt.
What role did rugby play in your life?
I started playing rugby seriously when I was 18/19. I really only played rugby to keep myself fit and in good condition over the winter months, in order to be in good shape come the new GAA year.
As I got to 20/21 I showed a bit of talent and along with Noel we both were picked to play for the Leinster Junior rugby team, and won the Inter-provincial championship that year, beating Ulster in the final in Ardee. We were the first two brothers to do that. I was after winning a senior hurling/football double that year (1991), and got an opportunity to play with Greystones senior rugby team. Both Des and Brian were already there. So I said I’d try have a go.
I knew I had an ability, but physically I was a bit behind for a number 8 forward. 6ft 2in and 15 stone was small for that position back then, but I was athletic, had decent hands and pace, but I lacked the physicality at that time. I really enjoyed it and I decided to have a serious go at it (I hoped to make the Leinster senior squad). I honestly decided to give up hurling and concentrate on rugby.
None of that rugby mattered after 22nd of October 1991, while playing in the old Lansdowne Road v Wanderers RFC.
A collapsed maul, me at the bottom, body gone one way, head stayed in a locked position. My rugby career was over. 3 collapsed cervical vertebrae. Afterwards, I was advised never to play again. I was devastated. All of my ambition to better myself and go higher up the ranks was over in one movement. I went into a very dark place for a long time. If that happened to a player today, they would receive huge support from all round, both job-wise, physical and mental support, from professional people. I was offered none of these, just ‘hard luck and move on’. After 6 or 7 months I went back to play GAA, but I knew I wasn’t ready, as my heart wasn’t in it. The fear of a strong tackle, could it cause more damage and finish this career too, could I end up paralysed? These were the things going through my mind.
After a couple of years I eventually decided either to get back full on hurling or quit it altogether. Once my mind was made up I went at it and my confidence and ability grew on the GAA field. But often still, even today, 30 years on I have some regret, that I should have gone and got more support to help get over a life changing injury. But they were different times. It was only years later when I realised I had been suffering from depression, but not back then. If you said you weren’t feeling well, people would distance themselves from you, that’s very sad really. But that was the way back then. People who never played, or went through that, would not understand unfortunately.
Thankfully there is a great support system for any person with any issues today and it is brilliant to hear and see people look for the support needed.
How did you get into football?
I was never serious about football until 1991. I remember the first round of the senior championship in Timahoe v St Joseph’s. Portlaoise were champions in 1990. Portlaoise were poor on the night and were bullied by Joseph’s, who beat Portlaoise by 10pts. Joseph’s were rubbing it in all over the field and outside the wire too. Donal, my brother, got a nasty off the ball punch from an official on the Joseph’s side-line and nobody came to help him. I was fuming. I went to see how he was after the game in the dressing room and Mick Lillis asked me would I play with them. No problem, I wanted and waited for Joseph’s all year, it didn’t happen. We beat a young Portarlington team in the final that year. I was midfield with Carl Lenihan. Great win, to win that playing football with Tom and Nodsey (Noel) Prendergast, Colm and Gerry Browne, Mick Lillis, Cyril and Liam Duggan was great.Tony Dunne was brilliant that day for Portlaoise. He was a gifted athlete, could play any sport easily. That was their last one to win, except Cyril (1999). Pity it wasn’t Joseph’s though I often thought. I played midfield in 1997 v Stradbally, when we had 6 or 7 of the All-Ireland winning minor team from 1996 playing. Stradbally beat us by 6pts. They deserved the win. I scored two points from play in that final from midfield. I wasn’t a good player, but I could do the job asked of me.
What was disappointing was the 13-week wait between semi-final and final. Stradbally used the excuse they had a player on their panel on the Laois minor panel and refused to play, even though he wasn’t next or near their starting team. The truth was Tony Maher had a groin operation after their semi-final, and it took a 3 month recovery period in order for him to play the final. I felt the club should have been stronger in dealing with the County Board at that time.
Cyril Duggan was captain of that team. Had it been the normal 2 to 3 week gap between games, Cyril would have captained Portlaoise to a senior county title. No doubt in my mind.
A mixed bag really, but I loved playing football for Portlaoise. A lot of those young minors from 96 went on to be great seniors for the town and won a lot of championship medals. Great dedicated lads every one of them.
Do you have any regrets?
The biggest regret I have as a player is the amount of times I allowed myself go out on the hurling field not 100% fit. I had a lot of niggly injuries, but I always played and felt pressured to play. That would never happen today, nor should it. If a player is not 100% fit, and the manager plays him, he puts the whole team performance and result in jeopardy. Regrets linger over the Féile in 81, being taken off in a minor final in 85, loving it but not making it, injuries from rugby.
Did you get hard knocks?
I became very driven in the mid-‘90s. We lost county finals in ‘92, ‘93 and ’95. A good Camross team beat us in the semi-final in ’96 (they went on to win the Leinster club title). We lost to a good Castletown team in semifinal in 97 (they should have won Leinster, lost a replay to Birr). A few Portlaoise players were not giving their all I felt, and had dropped the standards set and shown to us by the great teams of the ‘80s. If a fella wasn’t doing his job, and maybe management were not telling him, it led me to feel that lads were taking the easy option, rather that working like dogs for the team. I decided, as a committed outfield player, that I was going to tell that type of player the truth. I wanted to win County championships for the town, simple as that. I was wrong at times, confronting players, but I just really wanted the team to be the best they could be and for me to be the best player I could be too. I never fell out with any Portlaoise player permanently (even if they fell out with me!)
Persistence pays off?
We eventually got a great group of honest, decent and committed players playing again for Portlaoise senior hurlers. I was captain in 1998 when we beat The Harps in the county final and I was at the top of my game, very fit, injury free and very determined. We didn’t have a great hurling team – the lads on that team usually say that about themselves, but our work rate for each other was massive. Honesty in every player won that championship. We focused on training our minds and bodies to hook and block the opposition at all times. We got to a Leinster final and beat the Kilkenny champions along the way. That was a great year. Great lads to play with.
I owe everything to Tom Bergin, (Paul and Liam’s father, Aaron and Gary’s grandad) He was very good to me, he also knew I loved hurling, but he knew my confidence was low.
He would be very straight with me, if I needed a cop-on talk, Tom would tell me. As a young hurler we lived across “the back lane” in St Brigid’s.I would often go with Tom, doing his bread rounds, pipe smoke everywhere, chatting with him about matches and so on. I can still smell the pipe smoke.
In 1987 Tom took over the Junior hurling team in the club, and he told me one day that “I’m going to play you midfield and you will be taking the frees also” I was totally surprised, and began to doubt myself again. What if I let him down? We won that Junior championship and I was young (18) and starting to get better and more confident. I scored 7 or 8 points in that final v Timahoe, with the great Jimmy Wrest as captain on the day. I played for the senior team that year also, and I was on the panel when we beat Clonad in the final. That was the best Portlaoise hurling team I ever saw or played with. We lost the Leinster club final by one point in Nowlan Park v Rathnure. Our footballers had beaten Parnells of Dublin, in the Leinster club football final. We were so close to being the first club to win the provincial club double. Incredible players on both teams.
I was captain of the winning u/21 team v Camross in 1988 with Tom again as the manager. I owe Tom a huge thanks for helping me believe in myself that I could be a good competitive player. He made me captain of that u/21 team. I didn’t realise until years later, what Tom actually had done for me. It’s a lovely trait in a person and mentor to do that for a young player low on confidence. He was the reason I became the hurler I was.
The best days?
- Playing midfield in 1989 when winning the championship v Camross.
- Getting man of the match in 91, winning the championship v Clonad.
- Getting man of the match and captain in 1998, winning the championship v The Harps.
- Played midfield in 2004 winning the championship v Castletown.
Slow to start, but a lot of good days too!
And the worst?
Losing a county final is just terrible. As great as it is to win them, it’s the ones you lose that you think of most and have the biggest regrets from.
I played in and lost senior hurling finals in ‘88, ‘90, ‘92, ‘93, ‘95 and ‘99, ‘97 (football). Lost 7, won 6.
Not a great record you might say but I know a lot of players would give anything to have won six senior championships.
What was your time with Laois like?
I played for Laois from 1989 to 2002. But in truth I stayed on 2 years too long. Looking back I feel I had little to offer in my last 2 years. It was enjoyable, and I loved to play with great Laois players like PJ Cuddy, Joe Dollard, Bill Maher, John Taylor, Paul Cuddy, Declan Conroy, Ricky Cashin and many more, great players to share a dressing room with. I grew into a county player who always wanted to test himself, I asked the manager countless times to put me on the opposition’s best player, I loved that test of ability. A lot of days it didn’t work out for me, but I think I handled myself ok against a lot of teams too. We should have beaten Kilkenny in the semifinal in 1998, lost by 3 points, they won Leinster by 9. We could have won Leinster had we pushed on against the cats that time.
Tell us about your time as a manager.
The most enjoyable aspect of being a manager is seeing your players give complete effort in everything you ask of them, it’s not always about winning.If you give every ounce of yourself as a player to be in the right mind and attitude, then every manager will respect you. I always said to players, to give your supporters ‘a team to support’. Be honest with yourself and the players.
The stressful times are when dealing with people who are not 100% committed. A player can easily hide from a manager and think he is fooling him in his actions off the pitch, but the player is only fooling himself and his teammates. On the big day, that dishonest player will always be found out.
From ‘The Town’ to ‘The Village’…
When I left the Laois position in 2010, like a lot of inter-county managers in the same situation, I was very frustrated.
There were a few things:
- County board officials not caring if you ever won or lost a game, once your set-up wasn’t costing them too much beyond the miserable budgets they set
- A couple of players who went off with their club mates a week before our last qualifier game, and didn’t make the last Sunday session, because of a drinking session.
- Myself for not dropping them from the panel and starting one of them, bringing the other on a sub.
I resigned after that Carlow game in 2010, before I was asked to.
90% of the Laois lads were great committed players who maybe lacked the real belief that they were good enough, but they gave it their all with little proper support from the county board. Again my opinion.
How was managing hurling royalty?
The only times I ever doubted myself was as that young player from 12 to 18 years old. I had huge belief in my ability later in life. Some players might think that’s arrogance, but I think it was just belief that I was as good as their best player if tested. Working with such players as Eoin Larkin and Jackie Tyrell, winners of multiple all Ireland medals, captains of winning Kilkenny senior teams was great.Great county players but huge club players too. The club is everything. So they knew I was honest, direct, organised, encouraging, hard when I needed to be, but caring about their needs and team preparation above all. If you are anything other than that in a traditional county or club, they will see through you easily enough. I had a great respectful relationship with that club and panel of players. Great times.
How different is it managing a hurling and a football team?
I found no difference at all, because the fundamentals of both games are the very same. The only thing I will say about the Portlaoise senior football players is that they are brilliant lads, dedicated, honest, caring, great Portlaoise men, who love the jersey. Nobody epitomises the committed dedication to our jersey more than Bruno McCormack and Kieran Lillis. For me, magnificent people, who love the town.
The future of the club?
The development of our players and teams should always be the priority not lights, drainage or pitches. That’s just my opinion. We won an All-Ireland club title, numerous senior football and hurling doubles, minor and senior doubles in 1984 – the centenary year. All that with 2 pitches and a clubhouse, poor lights later on, and for a long time, one pitch. Unless we get back to this way of thinking, we’re in trouble on the playing side. We need to encourage our young players and challenge our hurlers to make the step up and be extra competitive, anything else is below our standards.
The fairway or the side-line in 2021?
I love looking at all sports, any sport during this Covid era, but that will pass and we will be back at games later in the summer. I am back playing a little bit of golf in Portlaoise golf club after 4 years away from it. I’m not that good, but I enjoy the chat and craic that goes with that.
I don’t see myself being on a side-line again soon to be honest. With my own club I am delighted to see the influx of new blood at executive level this year – some great town people on board and it feels like we might start all pulling together in the right direction. People are in there with the right motives for the club and they need the support of all clubmen. Yes facilities are important but I want to see a real focus on us getting back competing to win senior championships in hurling – which needs real attention – and football in the near future.
A word from Stephen Duff
Time for the Tattler to check in on our champion ladies footballers as they continue their preparations for their upcoming Leinster Final on September 8th. We spoke to team manager Stephen Duff, to see how preparations are going.
How does it feel to finally have a date?
It was great to get the email from Leinster after such a long wait for this Leinster final. Initially the date provided was right bang in the middle of the leaving cert, and unlike our opponents this would affect us massively having 6 panel members doing their exams. There were been a number of attempts to get another date but it was overlapping with county games. The game is now fixed for September 8th. I know the group are really excited to play the game. It’s a massive challenge, but we want to test ourselves and see where we are and what developments we have made over the past 12 months and where we need to get to over the next period. Challenges have always excited this group, it’s not something they have walked away from, but instead fronted up and took it on head first.
How has preparation been going?
Preparation has been really positive. It’s been a long time, but everyone’s attitude to learn and improve has been great. We know we can improve and develop how we want to play further so that drives us. Last year we spoke about being the best that we can be a lot, and despite our success we as a group felt that we still hadn’t been the best that we can be, so over the winter we went back to the drawing board, and started to look at areas we can improve on. One thing for certain is our shot conversion rate, that needs to be better, the girls set performance goals for themselves last year, and that number drives us. We know if we can hit that number we will be there or there abouts. We know that we won’t always succeed and there have been and will be days where we are not at our best, but it’s how we react to that, which is important.
Any injury concerns?
No injury concerns at the minute thank god, the group are great to look after themselves. Niall Walsh who works with us on S&C has been top notch on their return to play programs, building the intensity back up so that there was no sudden spikes in activity, it has been kept pretty constant while allowing for breaks when life happens as it does to us all.
What would you know about Foxrock- Cabinteely?
I would actually know a bit about Foxrock Cabinteely, I work quite closely in DCU with their previous manager Peter Clarke & Pat Ring. I think what they have done as a club is truly impressive. Their record speaks for itself. They have a nice mix of experience and youth coming through. But it doesn’t phase us. Many people have probably written us off. But as we saw in 2020 with Sarsfields record we have no problem taking on these challenges. Obviously through Laura Nerney we would have a natural connection between the two clubs. Laura a former player with Portlaoise has really excelled and won so much with Foxrock. She has been a great servant to the club, and we are delighted to see things go so well for her. But for one day only the friendships will be left in the dressing room and who knows, hopefully someday, she will return and share her experiences with our group. Would be great for the group and club as a whole.
How difficult is it to prepare for a final a year on?
It’s’ something very new to me and the group. Last year we took every game one game at a time. We had a very simple weekly process that we followed every week, which allowed us to focus on the next game and not get carried away with ourselves. It was player led, and they would identify where we needed to improve and we would go from there. This year will be no different. While we have a Leinster final to play, it’s a one off game which the result will have no consequence to 2021. So we will take the game like we would any other. Prepare the best we can, identify some areas we want to attack, play the game, review it and then go and do it all again for the next game. The girls have been great throughout the whole time. We are blessed to have a massive interest and this year we have a panel of almost 60 players. We can afford to allow our county footballers and camogie players to go away and focus on that part of their lives, allow students to study where needed and still have over 30 at training. This dedication in the group allows us to do so much more at training. Big groups can be difficult, but the group has become very tight, everyone has a part to play and they know their value to the group. It’s something, as a group we worked a lot on last year, was ensuring everyone had a part to play, whether it be playing, leading, building culture, or simply being on the social committee organising our next party. It’s a club team and a hobby, and we should all feel like we belong and we have had some sort of hand in how the group performs and functions. Off the back of this the girls have developed a bit of a mindset and core values which they want the group to live by. Its T.O.W.N. – Togetherness- Ownership- Winning Mentality – No Egos. These core values make it easier for us to make decisions on what direction we want the group to go. It’s almost a road map for the group, and something the group should be really proud of developing.
It's a great achievement to reach Leinster Final having won Laois for first time ever
The target at the start of the year was always win Laois, the girls had been through so much pain on that journey to winning it, that winning laois had to be the goal. But the evening in Rathleague, when we qualified for the county semi-final I challenged the girls to stretch their target, and see could we get a Leinster final. We felt as a group that Portlaoise had under-performed and under delivered and for a town and club of Portlaoise’s size, that we should be consistently pushing for Leinster’s, like the lads in the club. So while Laois was always the main goal, Leinster was always at the back of our minds. We know there is so much young talent coming through in the club that we want to nurture that, set the standards for the group and the club and hopefully it can bring continued success. It can become what they always strive for. We aren’t there yet, we have to work really hard to get there, but hopefully in 5 – 10 years the work the girls are doing now to build this team will be paying off.
Can you explain how difficult it has been dealing with Covid situation?
Covid has been difficult for everyone, but some more than others. A lot of people have lost loved ones, a lot of people have lived with anxiety from losing work, living with health conditions etc. So yes it’s been really tough, but we were getting out to be part of a sport and a club that we love. So we kept it in perspective and I think our management team in the field drove that and particularly Lorraine McCormack, who works really close with the girls. We needed to be conscious of everyone’s differing situations. Everyone had different worries, so it meant a lot of open communication. Keep in contact with everyone. The girls had their Whatsapp group hopping. They had zoom quizzes, zoom award nights, amongst others that I probably can’t mention on a publication like this!! But things like this kept everyone connected and reminded them they were part of a community. We knew we had no control over what was happening in the real world, but we could control our reaction to it, and I think they group players and management reacted top notch.
Tell us a bit about Stephen Duff…
I am from Ballyfin originally. Currently living in Portlaoise. Have played football all my life, despite never been much good at it. I work in Business Development in tech companies. I am doing a degree In PE, Coaching & Sports Psychology in my evenings and weekends, just in case I didn’t have enough time. So yeah I like being busy. Probably would be quite young for management of senior teams. We have a few girls who would be older than me (I won’t name and shame them) and I would have been in school or college with others. Which can be tough initially when you are trying to build credibility but is actually really nice once you’re in. I have been coaching for about 6/7 years and have managed to fit in a fair bit of experience in that time. I’m an awful man for saying yes to things.
Have worked with Ballyfin senior men’s team as manager and now as a coach. Ballyfin ladies as manager. Laois ladies as a coach. DCU senior ladies as a coach.
How did you get roped in?
As I said I’m an awful man for saying yes to things!! I was after finishing with the Laois Ladies and just starting with DCU, and Phil O Keefe and myself had a chat and one thing led to another and myself and Cyril Mulligan our chairman really hit it off. Cyril has some really great ideas for the club and taking them forward. As I mentioned before I would have known a lot of the girls before. Some really well and other just in passing but it always seemed like a nice environment, and we all know the potential this group has, so it wasn’t even a decision; was always going to be an honour to be part of this group.
What do you think is the potential of this bunch of players?
Opportunities are endless, it’s what the group decide themselves what they want to make of them. There have been a lot of positive and encouraging conversations early doors which makes me excited for the year ahead. But we will only judge ourselves on our next competitive game, whether that be league, championship or Leinster final. It can be a challenge finding that hunger after chasing a dream for so long. But with the panel we have built and the numbers we have we have massive competition for places which should keep everyone on their toes. We had a group of new minors join us this year who we hope will push everyone that bit harder, They seem hungry to develop and improve which can only be a positive. There may not be trophies every year, but we can’t measure success based on trophies. On that basis only one team would succeed every year. Instead we must measure success on performances, developments, improvements. If they win us trophies brilliant. But the bigger picture needs to be remembered and for me the bigger picture is having a place for every girl who has an interest to participate in football. To allow a path for players to go from minor to junior to senior. To bring success to the club. For us, it’s about becoming better versions of ourselves, and hopefully translating that to performances on the pitch.
Out of Town with Liam Duggan
This month the Tattler caught up with a former Town great who left Portlaoise and Ireland 42 years ago this year. Kieran Daly is a brother of our Vice-Chairperson Catherine Fitzgerald and an uncle of Tommy and Barry. Here Kieran looks back on the glory days – he was part of the team that won the Leinster Club Championship in 1976 – with a very special recollection of a famous win in that campaign, against the mighty St Vincent’s of Dublin. Grab a cuppa, sit back and enjoy Kieran bringing us right back into the exciting atmosphere of those times..
Leaving the town
I left Portlaoise in 1979 to further my nursing career and ended up as a service manager in the NHS in the Liverpool area. I had not intended to remain in the UK but having settled in I have stayed here ever since and am unlikely to leave now. In 1979 I continued to play for The Town, and we beat Josephs in the county final. We met Walsh Island in the Leinster Club Final and were essentially beaten by Matt Connor who scored a breath-taking goal which no one would have stopped.
I have always liked living in what is now called the Liverpool City Region. This area includes a number of other boroughs as well as Liverpool and has a population of 1.6 million. Liverpool is a very vibrant city and after suffering an economic downturn in the seventies and eighties bounced back during the Capital of Culture in 2008. It became a destination city and now has a huge hospitality sector.
Apart from a couple of years with the local authority I have spent all my career working in the National Health Service (NHS). It is a remarkable organisation. Essentially healthcare is free at the point of entry for everyone regardless of wealth. Although the UK spends less on health than some European countries it has very good outcomes because there is a high degree of accountability about how money is spent. The NHS received a big boost in funding in the early 2000s when Tony Blair/Gordon Brown were prime ministers. Although the government gave us plenty of money, we were set targets and were required to produce business plans. This demanded a great degree of change in the way people work and how services were delivered. My role involved overseeing a lot of this transformation. Some people objected saying they did not become a doctor/nurse/therapist to look at spreadsheets. It was important to listen to people but also point out that this was taxpayers’ money and we had to use it wisely and allow ourselves to be subject to scrutiny. I retired four years ago and keep busy with doing long distance walks and looking after the grandchildren.
1975 - Breaking through.
I played for Portlaoise underage teams from the age of 13 and played my first senior championship match against Stradbally when I was 18 in 1975. There were a number of players from the Leinster club championship winning team of 1971/72 on the team and we were perhaps unlucky to lose but this was the fourth year in a row that The Town had been beaten in the early rounds of the championship and there was much soul searching afterwards. The senior team was in a period of transition and nothing stands still. I did not know it at the time, but this was a good life lesson in the management of change in sport and in life generally.
1976 - The Town are back
The following year we started anew; we had eight under 21s on the team, but we also had Mick Mulhall, Sean Mullins, Jim Harding, Eamon Whelan, Mick Dooley and John Joe Ging (Old Timer) who were a bit older and added some ballast to the team. This formula proved to be the classic mix of youth and experience and we got to the county final against Graiguecullen. There were several highlights along the way: the one that sticks out is John Joe’s “goal” against St. Josephs in Graiguecullen. John Joe was playing at full forward and received a pass on the edge of the square, he had a tussle with the full back and then suddenly John Joe, the full back and the ball were all in the back of the net. The referee gave us the goal. It was a bit of luck but we deserved it. The final against Graigue was a very tense affair and it was desperately disappointing when Graigue got a goal to draw the game in the last few minutes. However, we learned a lot from this match and played a much faster passing game in the replay. I remember Mick Dooley and Eamon Whelan being outstanding in midfield and Jim Harding having a fine game at full back. Nobody could knock Jimmy Bergin off the ball at centre back. I think Graigue must have put three different men on him. Our forwards were very fast and skilful and after this game we began to attract a lot of support from across the county. A number of these supporters were from the Hurling Area.
When we won there was an outpouring of emotion; old men I did not know came to shake our hands in the dressing room. This was a moment in time in the distinguished history of Portlaoise GAA club, but we brought great joy to the people of Portlaoise on that day and that is something that I will always take with me.
Kings of Leinster.
Everything we did after the county final was a bonus, but we kept achieving greater things. We were crowned Leinster champions in January 1977 having beaten Cooley Kickhams in the final and ended up losing narrowly to Austin Stacks with all their Kerry greats on board. We had beaten Castletown of Wexford and a fine Moate team on our way to the Leinster final.
The game that is seared into my memory however is the Vincents match in November ’76. Vincents were rightly favourites going into the match as we were seen as a young team that would not be able to cope with the Dubliners’ power and experience. They had a full squad apart from Gay O’Driscoll, the Dublin full back at the time, who was unable to play because of a bereavement. That still meant they had Jimmy Keavney, Tony Hanahoe, Bobby Doyle, Brian Mullins and several Dublin panellists in their team. We brought the game to Vincents and were ahead until the final quarter. But, like all good teams, Vincents had begun to assert themselves and using their experience were cranking up the pressure. They gradually caught up with us, drew level and were looking to win the game. Despite being expertly pinned down, we were not imploding. The crowd could sense something important was going on and began to stir. Mick Dooley and Eamon Whelan were doing wondrous things at midfield, outplaying Brian Mullins and Fran Ryder. We were holding out defensively, but the pressure was intense. With not much time left and the scores level we needed a break and then we got one. We managed to get the ball to Liam Scully who playing at left half forward; Tom Prendergast was nearby in the centre forward position. Tom had that gift that great players have of being able to think microseconds faster than ordinary mortals. He saw a space behind the centre back and ran into it. Liam reacted quickly and lobbed a perfect pass into Tom’s hands and suddenly he was away with what seemed like the whole of Vincents after him. No one could catch him. Our other forwards were all making room and pulling their men away. Tom planted the ball over the bar. He was 20 years old. A huge roar went up. It was incredible being there.
But the match was not over. Suddenly, Bobby Doyle, Vincents’ best player, had the ball on our half back line. He had an ungainly style, but it was incredibly difficult to dispossess him. He appeared to waltz past our half backs: George Plunkett, Jimmy Bergin and Noel Scully. Writing this sentence, even forty-four years later, seems strange; nobody but nobody waltzed past these guys. It was then the turn of Sean Mullins and myself. It was no good, he was just too elusive. Bringing him down would have resulted in a penalty. Doyle now only had only Mick Mulhall, our goalkeeper, to beat. He hit the ball hard and low to Mick’s left. This is the end I thought: we had played well but Vincents’ experience was too much, we were a young team etc. etc. The platitudes were already going around in my head.
Mick ‘Bonetti’ Mulhall saves the day.
But wait, Mick had reacted, almost instantaneously, Peter Bonetti like, to the shot and had parried it away. Within seconds the match was over. We had won an amazing victory. Cue tumultuous scenes. We didn’t just have supporters from Portlaoise congratulating us but people from all over the county.
The Town in Leinster.
Were there any pointers that we would beat Vincents? I think there were a few. Our confidence had increased after the county final and we really applied ourselves to the club championship. Sometimes Town teams play better and move to a new level in the Leinster championship. We had scored 5 goals against Castletown of Wexford in an earlier round, and everyone was very sharp. We had a high level of fitness and trained very hard by the standards of the time. Our forwards could all show up at different times. Being able to keep the scoreboard ticking over is a priceless asset in a team.
I remember Bernie Conroy and Billy Bohan getting some crucial scores in different games. Ger Griffin and George Buggie were our forward subs, and they too were generally able to get scores at pressure points in matches. Colm Bowne was a highly intelligent footballer. We sometimes had a half forward line of Colm, Liam Scully and Tom Prendergast. That is a formidable line-up and would test most half back lines, even those with today’s levels of strength and conditioning. John Joe used his physical presence well as full backs at that time could be uncompromising and he perhaps did not always get the credit he deserved for this. In the backs, we just kept things very tight and simple and developed a great degree of positional sense between us. Mick and Atch in midfield were simply great footballers who were both supremely fit and always made the right decisions. I have not seen Mick Mulhall for some time but when I do, I usually bring up That Save. Mick is very modest about it, but it was astounding. Two of the team, George Buggie and Sean Mullins have since died. They are missed greatly. RIP
The Kerry and Dublin teams dominated things, but Tom Prendergast was as good as any of them. Matt Connor was a match winner who made everything look easy. Willie Brennan had a skillset that would easily fit in today’s game.
Playing against The Heath was always a challenge but generally a fair one.
Bill Phelan helped The Town develop the best underage setup in the county. We won several minor and under 21 titles before we made it to the senior team. I believe that getting to all these finals and winning them helped us develop a winning mentality and prepared us for the rigours of the senior game.