‘I was in Australia for most of my mid-20s’: Veteran Laois defender making up for lost time
HAVING STARTED ALL four of Laois’s round-robin games in the Joe McDonagh Cup, defender Joe Phelan was disappointed to discover he’d been left out of the team for the final against Westmeath.
“It was tough at the time getting dropped for that match,” Phelan admits.
Despite being one of the elder statesmen on the Laois panel, Phelan was making up for lost time on the inter-county scene. He packed up and headed Down Under in 2011 as a 22-year-old.
“I haven’t been around that long,” he says. “I was in Australia for most of my mid-20s. And I’m on (the panel) three or four years. I’m one of the oldest all right.”
Phelan pitched up in Brisbane and the following year helped the Cuchulainns club win their first-ever Brisbane championship. He later moved up the Queensland coast and helped set-up a hurling team in Mackay that went on to reach the finals of the Australian 7s tournament.
But having played minor and U21 with Laois, Phelan returned home in 2014 and was soon called up to the county panel by Seamus ‘Cheddar’ Plunkett after impressing for his native Camross.
He’s been an ever-present on the Laois squad ever since. Phelan had to make do with a brief cameo as a 71st-minute substitute against Westmeath in Croke Park, when the game was long over.
He was eager to regain his place on the team and was recalled for the Dublin game after a broken finger ruled out corner-back Donnachadh Hartnett.
“Donnachadh got an injury and I got back in. It wasn’t that tough I was really looking forward to the challenge to be honest.”
He was handed the task of keeping Dublin’s goal poacher Eamonn Dillon under wraps, which he did, holding him to a single point.
“To play in such a big game, it’s what you train for, to play in the big games. It wasn’t that tough and thankfully it went alright.
“We always believed we could do it. We came so close so many times with Laois over the last couple of years. Just to finally get over the line in the big one just makes it all worth it.
“That feeling, I’ve never felt it in a Laois jersey before. Just incredible and the atmosphere there – the place was rocking. I’ve never seen a Laois crowd as big. It was just an unbelievable place to be last Sunday.
Joe Phelan was speaking at the All-Ireland SHC series national launch.
Source: Brendan Moran/SPORTSFILE
“It was just pure pandemonium,” he reflects. “We were jumping around with the players and next thing a wave of fans, a wall of them just met you. We were out there celebrating for nearly an hour.
“It was just an unbelievable feeling, that adrenaline. To see all the supporters so happy and for the players to finally get over the line in a big match was a fantastic feeling.”
Laois face another short turnaround when they take on beaten Munster finalists Tipperary. It will be their third game in the space of 14 days.
Considering there were Laois players going down with cramp in the closing stages of the Dublin game, their fitness levels will be further tested in Croke Park on Sunday.
For Phelan and his team-mates, there’s the small matter of going up against Tipperary’s extremely talented front six.
“It’s something they’re going to have to look at, there should definitely be a two-week break after the McDonagh Cup final.
“That was our main target for the year and when you achieve that, you go out and celebrate it. Then you have to go again the next weekend, you should really get more time.
“Three weeks in a row is a bit much but we can’t use it as an excuse, we’re just going to have to refocus and see what happens on Sunday.
“We’ll see how the legs hold up on, we won’t know till we go out. At the moment, everyone is on a high and it’s just about keeping it going and keeping it rolling.
“We’re in the last six of the Liam MacCarthy, it’s unbelievable. Hopefully, we can rattle Tipp and see what happens.
“A couple of weeks ago, a lot of us hadn’t played in Croke Park and now we’re back there twice in three weeks, it’s just been an unbelievable season for the hurlers and the Laois supporters.
“I was talking to a couple of them and they’re broke following us this year! I’m sure they’re happy, it’s just a fantastic time to be around the setup.”
Joe Phelan tackles David Dempsey during a league encounter against Limerick.
Source: Ken Sutton/INPHO
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Laois have been notable for their use of a shorter stick-passing game under manager Eddie Brennan. Against Dublin they employed John Lennon in a sweeping role and he’s likely to play as a seventh defender against the Premier once again.
“Niall (Corcoran) and Eddie must have sat down at the start of the year and said ‘this is the way we’re going to play.’ We work on it in training all the time, working it out.
“You have to stick to the system. That’s the system we’ve been working on this year. When you are under pressure that’s the time you have to stick to it, Things can fall apart in that atmosphere.
“In fairness, we kept working it out, kept working it out and we got our just rewards. I know a few went astray midway through the second half, they got a few points, the crowd were on our back sort of, but that’s the way we play.
“That’s the way we practise in training, and you have to bring that into the game. We stuck to our guns thankfully.
“We set up a bit differently against Dublin than we usually would but that’s just trying to find the man in the best position. All the teams are doing that now, Limerick, if you watch them and Cork, they’re all playing this short, possession game and we’re just following suit and it’s working well so far.
“Eddie is huge, he has that ruthless streak when he talks. He instils that belief and ignorance into you. He has been fantastic for this group in that sense. He is as hard as nails, he has that mentality, and he is doing a fantastic job.”
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