Eddie Brennan reflects on Laois journey
By Michael Devlin
It would have been hard for Eddie Brennan to suitably dissect Laois hurlers’ Championship odyssey on Sunday evening.
Maybe by Monday afternoon even, the picture might not have been a whole lot clearer, but still clearer nonetheless.
The year began in hurling’s second tier, a Joe McDonagh Cup opener with Offaly, and ended within the top six sides in the country under the lowering sun of Croke Park yesterday.
On reflection of it all, the Kilkenny great cuts a satisfied figure almost a day on. “It’s like anything, you start digressing a little bit more and you’re picking up a few bits and pieces. But overall I suppose, the cup is half full. We’d a massive year all in all. That’s ultimately where it’s at right now.”
Not many teams get a lap of honour and applause from their opponents after losing a quarterfinal by ten points. But Laois’ journey - in particular the whirlwind last two weeks since winning the McDonagh Cup and then spectacularly dumping Dublin out eight days ago - more than warrants a show of acknowledgment of the trail the blazed across this year’s hurling summer.
Still though, Brennan would rather not settle for the moral victories and pats on the back. He’s thinking of the ways Laois can do better, and will do better.
“The competitor I’m conditioned to be, I look at that match and say, ‘We could have got more out of it’. That’s the reality, and that’s the process of losing. When you do reflect on it, you see the bits and pieces. But as I said yesterday, it’s a steep learning curve because when you play quality opposition, they’ll hurt you when you make mistakes.
“We did so much good yesterday, the big takeaway was that we’re not that far away from the top tier, and you’re kind of looking at it from the point of view that already, I’m looking forward to the National League campaign next year, because that’s where we’re at. There’s an opportunity to flesh out the squad even more.”
This will be Laois’ reality now. Yesterday was Tipperary, the week before was Dublin. Next year, they will be put through the top-tier ringer on a weekly basis in the Leinster SHC.
“That becomes the norm,” says Brennan. “It’s the level you want to be at. The Joe McDonagh was excellent in what it was. When I go back to where we were in the first match, [compared to] where we are now, you’re saying to come here for two weeks and perform, because there is a different sense of occasion when you come to Croke Park, and yesterday was a step up again just to see the lads were comfortable in that environment and got on with it.
“You’re trying to get them to relax and be the best they can be without overthinking things. That comes from not having baggage, in a way you don’t know what the consequences are. Just all in all, I was just very happy with them – a very young bunch of guys and the way they applied themselves, the fearlessness and how they embraced the whole thing.
“I think you could have been very easily forgiven to lie down yesterday. Even with 14 men for long periods of that second half, we were game. That’s all you can ask for.”
Brennan’s Laois tenure began amid a commitment epidemic in the county, with numerous established players deciding not to answer the new managers’ casting call and turned down the jersey.
“It’s something I just do not get. I just can’t understand why lads would not want to hurl for their county,” he said at the time.
One such player was last year’s captain Ross King, who chose to step away from the panel ‘for the foreseeable future’ after suffering a serious facial injury in action for his club Rathdowney-Errill in the Laois county senior final last September. On Sunday, it was King who rattled the Tipperary goal just before halftime to put the Premier County back on their heels.
For the upcoming season, Brennan may not face the same pushback. The grá for hurling for Laois may come that bit easier.
“Possibly. To be clear, that was something that did frustrate me at the time. In the context of hurling is not the be all and end all in life and guys are well entitled to make choices in life and I’ve no problem with that.
“Like I said yesterday, I’ve no ill will towards the guys who didn’t commit but you would be hoping to enhance the squad and get a bit of depth into it.
“I have a crew there that are very, very good and when you give an effort, you get loyalty and it’s as simple as that and I will be sticking with them guys going forward but the reality is, the evolution of a panel is that it always has to change.
“If we stay static, stay at this level and say ‘it was good enough to win us a Joe McDonagh, it was good enough to get us to an All Ireland quarter-final, we’ll do that again, we’re going to go nowhere. We have to push the bar a little bit higher.
“As much as that’s for players, it’s for management as well, if I go away and wallow in this, I’ll be codding myself and that’s the reality. I learned that from the best man himself that if we stay static, everybody just passes you by. It’s always striving for those little inches that are going to make the difference.
“If you got a taste of what they’ve got this year, you’re definitely saying ‘deadly can’t wait for next year, bring it on’ and those are the nights that test your character and test your spirit.
“You talk about the glamour of inter-county hurling, every time we went to Heywood on a Tuesday night last year, it just pissed rain every night and I was going ‘is this a jinx or something?’ But that’s character building too, lads are looking out at that rotten weather and you just go out and get on with it.
“I would imagine that lads will go back to their clubs and enjoy a little bit of downtime to put it very simply in that they can get the release without being in the county setup and enjoy it and say, ‘We’ve got to a mark now, there can be no drop backing back, only pushing on’.”
Eddie Brennan says he had no grey hairs when he took on the job last September. He was still hurling for his club Graigue-Ballycallan last season, reaching an All-Ireland intermediate club hurling semi-final at the age of 40.
The decision to line out for Graigue this year isn’t clear, something Brennan jokes might have to be put in an application form to his wife. The long hours and short sleeps of his first season in inter-county management were arduous, especially for a family man, and so for the time being he’ll enjoy the break. Thoughts of embarking on Laois’ 2020 journey will not be too far away however.
“It’s heavy skelping, I’ve dipped the toes in a bit of it and nothing would have prepared me for this year,” said Brennan of his debut season. “I had ideas of where I wanted to take it and I’m happy with the way it went but I learned so much from it, from Niall Corcoran, from Tommy Fitz, from Fran, from the players, and what you want to do and what you want to try and implement.
“It was a huge challenge and there are times when you do question yourself but it really is all-consuming. I'm not a big sleeper, I don't need much to function and I just found myself awake at half four, five o'clock in the morning and maybe going to get up and just go because your brain activates and you're just thinking through all the things that are coming. You're looking at training, team set-ups all that kind of stuff, but that's part of it.
“It'll be nice to get a little switch off from that. Like anything too, I've a small family at home and they need to get their time as well. That's the price you pay I suppose at times but it is what it is. You enlist, you soldier, and it’s as simple as that.”