John Sugrue making his mark with Laois footballers
By John Harrington
Laois manager John Sugrue’s phone has been hopping so much these days that he asks only half-jokingly would you be interested in taking it off him from good.
Inter-county management has a way of pulling out of you in all sorts of different ways, so it’s a good thing for Sugrue that Gaelic Football is a passion rather than a pastime.
“Football is the thing that I really love,” he told GAA.ie. “I've always played football growing up and it's probably half an illness!
“I really enjoyed it when I was playing on teams that were really figuring things out and trying to maximise their ability to a great degree, and working with fellas who are open to a great degree.
“I was probably too late developing myself as a player and that led to a degree of frustration. I suppose that led to maybe the desire to give fellas a small bit of direction a bit earlier in their career and get into coaching and see if you can get fellas to really maximise themselves.
“It's an interest of mine. It's good craic and good fun if you get the ball moving right and the fellas moving right and feeling good about themselves. If you have that there's great energy in it.”
A native of Renard in Kerry, Sugrue was a handy footballer himself in his playing days, winning four Kerry SFC titles with South Kerry.
He showed an aptitude for coaching from a young age too, starting out in his early twenties when he took charge of the Kerry Vocational Schools team and his own club’s U-14 side in the same year.
His coaching CV since then makes for impressive reading. He was Kerry senior team trainer when they won the All-Ireland title in 2007 and managed South Kerry to the County Senior Championship in 2015.
A physio by profession, he’s also had a strong association with sport in that capacity.
He was Kerry senior football team physio in 2011, Laois senior football team physio in 2012 and 2013, and has also worked with Irish international boxing teams as well as the Clare senior hurlers.
While he was Laois physio he also helped out with coaching the team midway through the 2013 season, which gave him an inkling he’d enjoy working with the players in a more full-time capacity further down the line.
“I did a small bit of coaching with them, towards the latter end of the year,” he said. “Moreso after they exited the provincial championship, just to freshen things up a small bit.
“It was grand, but it was very much a short window. We got little bits of runs going, but ultimately we bit the dust because we were probably a little bit behind.
“It was a little look into it and I found them engaging and interested in playing football. That appetite resonated with me when the chance came up to do it again.
“I definitely feel that there is a little bit more ability to achieve than what they have being
doing for the past couple of years. Laois football has been at a low point for a while now.
“I live up here and my young fella is a Laois man so I'd like to get it going a small bit better.”
Sugrue has taken on the Laois job at a time when the county’s fortunes are at a low ebb.
They’re down in Division 4 after successive relegations, and made an early exit from last year’s championship after heavy defeats to Kildare in Leinster and Clare in the All-Ireland Qualifiers.
The new manager made an early statement by giving six players their League debuts in a convincing first round win over Limerick, and since then they’ve also proven too strong for Leitrim, Waterford, and Wicklow.
Sugrue’s one-step at a time approach and focus on the basics of the game has slowly but surely begun paying dividends.
“To a great degree when you get 15 fellas going out on a field the interpretation of things can be quite different so we're trying to keep it relatively simple with the boys and keep it so that everyone understands what we're doing,” he said.
“I think a lot of it is method, then if you can guide the pathway then for fellas to achieve I think confidence comes with that.
“We tend to repeat stuff quite a bit but it's by repetition and practice that we're trying to improve this bunch of players.
“To be fair to them, they're working away and they're not complaining about being bored yet. So we'll see how we go.”
Laois full-forward Gary Walsh is certainly thriving under the new regime.
A mercurial talent who hasn’t always delivered consistently, he’s been excellent so far this year and is currently the top scorer in the League across all four divisions.
Sugrue has been pleased with his contribution, but is demanding more too, not just from Walsh, but all of the Laois players.
“Gary is going nicely, but he's a fella there's more in as well,” said Sugrue. “There's a share of our fellas who have more in them and we're gradually trying to tap into more and more from these fellas.
“Gary has always had potential, but it's time for him to fulfil it now. I don't think he has to date. This year he has made a very positive start so we're looking forward to seeing how he pushes on from here.”
Laois supporters will be very interested to see how this team as a whole pushes on from here over the course of the final three rounds in the League.
There’s an energy building within Laois football again since Sugrue took charge of the team, and a fifth win in a row on Sunday against London would give them another important power-surge.
“The boys will probably scoff if you said that I was bringing energy to the whole thing because I'm probably not the world's greatest entertainer!" said Sugrue.
“We're focusing on the results and our way of playing and our style of playing and really trying to be very disciplined about how we approach the game so fellas know what each other are doing.
“I'd be afraid I'd bore the fellas half the time but we're having to do that. It's part of the process of trying to be different than we were before.
“If we got out and we play the same as the boys have before then we're probably going to get the same results. There's a decent level of buy-in now and I hope fellas are enjoying winning a few games at this juncture.
“It's going to get crunchy from now on because we're into the top half of the table in Division 4 in terms of the teams we have yet to play so there's definitely more quality coming our way.
“I think we need to embrace that and really go after that and really try to be competitive and really, really put our mark on the Division.”