Joe Phelan relishing crazy Laois journey
By Cian O'Connell
Joe Phelan pauses briefly to wonder about it all. It has been a stint in which silverware and a prized scalp has been taken so these truly are heady days for Laois hurling.
That Laois return to Croke Park for the second time in a fortnight for Sunday’s All Ireland SHC Quarter-Final against Tipperary, merely adds to the sense of excitement and achievement.
Phelan, though, is thrilled to be occupying such a central role in the Laois journey with the Joe McDonagh Cup gleaned and Dublin dumped out of the Championship on a memorable afternoon in Portlaoise.
“It has been crazy, it has been brilliant,” Phelan admits. “Just getting out to Croke Park, lots of the team had never hurled there before, now we are going to get back again next weekend.
“It just has been an unbelievable few weeks, coming off the high of the Joe McDonagh. Then getting our heads right for the Dublin game, getting the result over Dublin was unbelievable for our home fans. The place was crazy, it was fantastic to be part of it.
“I was talking to supporters on Sunday night saying they were broke. They have never experienced anything like this before. Croke Park was such a big thing for us, just to get there in the Joe McDonagh.”
Valuable experience was gleaned by Laois at GAA headquarters. “You realise it is the same as any other pitch, the same as O'Moore Park, it is not that much different,” Phelan adds.
“The way it looks on TV you think it is some sort of colosseum. That was a big thing and I think it will stand to us the next day, that we have that experience from that day out there so recently. Hopefully it will stand to us against Tipperary.
How Eddie Brennan stitched a team together, getting bodies and minds right for the summer ensures Laois are relevant once more.
“He just brings that winning mentality, he is a winner, he has that arrogance, that charisma, he just shows no fear,” Phelan states.
“That rubs off on the players. He believes we can win and when he says we can do it we believe him. He just has us super-prepared, he has been fantastic for this group, just instilling that belief for us to realise our potential. He is doing a fantastic job.”
Being involved with Laois has brought demanding days, but the promise evident presently is most encouraging with Phelan recalling the impact former manager Seamus ‘Cheddar’ Plunkett made during his spell in charge.
“I was abroad for a few years, I went to Australia when I came back it took me another year or two to get on the panel,” Phelan remarks.
“I came in under Cheddar, he was super. I met him after the game, he was so delighted, a proud Laois man. He is just such a proud Laois man. He set this up in that a lot of the Laois panel started under Cheddar. We started in the right way with the strength and conditioning, the organisation he brought to the whole thing was top class.
“He set the standard really for this group, Eddie is after carrying that on and it is all gelling together. It has just been a fantastic year for Laois.”
Now that Laois have sampled victory at GAA headquarters and enjoyed a stirring success over Dublin it is critical to build on the solid foundation established.
“Absolutely, I think the average age of this team is around 22, it is such a young team,” Phelan replies. “Matthew Whelan and I are in our 30s and I don't know after that the age drop is fairly severe. I think this team is going to be around for a long time yet.
“This panel of players in the next five or six years anything is possible. The standard is there now and I don't see why it should slip. For Laois there should be a very bright future in the next few years. It is something we need to look forward to.”
Buoyed up by the manner of the win over Dublin Phelan is adamant that beating a top tier outfit can inject Laois with confidence.
“It is something we needed to do because we had got ourselves in that position so many times,” Phelan comments. “Being five or six points up at half-time, never seemed to push on, get caught in the last five or 10 minutes.
“Even there on Sunday Dublin got it back to a level game, a lot of people were thinking here we go again, but the next thing we got three points. That was vital at the time, it gave us a cushion again. We held out from there.
“The important thing I felt was that we stuck to the gameplan until the very end. No booming balls up the field, we kept our shape, kept to the process. Other years we might have panicked or lost the heads a little bit.
“That is down to the management and players, it is all instilled from earlier on in the year - belief in the process. Now that we have got over the line once, hopefully it will keep happening over and over again.”
In the Joe McDonagh Cup Laois acquired a winning habit and that is hugely significant according to Phelan. “I think that was very important, it has been a while since we were beaten. I think it was back in the League by Limerick in March. We have gone on a winning run, the first game was huge against Offaly in the Joe McDonagh. Ever since then everything has took off, we are on a high ever since.
“It has been brilliant, match after match nearly every week or every second week. We are after improving in every game since, it is unbelievable to be one of the last six counties left in the Liam MacCarthy. It is hard to believe really.”
Ultimately it enabled Laois to summon a daring display against Dublin when Brennan had them primed to cause an upset.
“The atmosphere, the place was rocking, it was incredible to hurl in,” Phelan acknowledges. “It was the first match in a long time where you'd be shouting at lads and they'd only be 20 yards away, but they couldn't hear you and you knew a point was going over five seconds before it went over the bar with the roar of the crowd in the stand and on the terrace.
“It was just a fantastic occasion, once the final whistle went and we finally got that scalp the crowd rushed on the field. We must have been out there an hour with the emotion of the fans, just to see what it meant to people it was a fantastic occasion.”
Reaching the closing stages of the All Ireland Championship means challenges are arriving thick and fast with Tipperary next on the agenda.
“We can't wait for it, Tipperary are a super team, we know that,” Phelan comments. “We will be going in as underdogs, the same as Dublin we will go in, tear into it and see what happens. Hopefully we will put in a big performance, it is just unreal to get on TV for us, that is a huge thing.
“To be playing in front of a big crowd, Kilkenny and Cork on before us, it is such a big day. We played Tipperary a couple of months ago before the Joe McDonagh in a practice match, they gave us a fair old trimming that day.
“Hopefully we have improved since then, I think we have improved, and hopefully we will give them a right good game.”