Back in 2005, as Laois made their way to Croke Park for an All Ireland quarter-final against Armagh, the first enemy outpost they reached was Athy. There was no hiding the fact either. The south Kildare town was draped with election-style posters, each one reading "Ulster Says No To The Queen's County". They were the work of one local man who'd spent dawn on a rickety stepladder but they encapsulated the sentiments of many in Kildare. There was a jealousy and bitterness that came from not just how well their rivals were doing, but how successful they could be.
Just four years on and Laois should be in a stronger position still, yet all that's left is the wreckage from last Saturday's Leinster semi-final against Kildare and there is very little to salvage from that. As good as their one provincial title and handful of years challenging as a top-eight team were, this is an underage superpower now acting like an irritating rogue state. Since 1996 they have won three All Ireland minor titles. That's more than Dublin, Galway, Mayo, Cork, Kerry and Armagh combined and only Tyrone have achieved more. They've won six Leinster minor titles in that same period too and have won three provincial under-21 titles since 1998.
Yet 40 minutes into last Saturday's clash with Kildare, Laois fans were deserting O'Connor Park and with all that has gone on, the side are in danger of being known as the Queens' County.
It's not a new phenomenon either. In fact it's the fourth time Laois have been embarrassed this year. Bernard Flynn may have talked about the ferocity of a training session he witnessed in the build-up to the game but that masked a side packed with too many egos and that had already been blitzed by Kildare, Monaghan and Cork in the league by an average of 12 points.
The problem is rooted in the past and it's developed into a culture of arrogance that's gone on too long to change. Mick O'Dwyer recently said of the side in this confession box, "He [Fergal Byron] was speaking from his heart because he gave me a wonderful commitment while I was there. Others couldn't say that. There was marvellous material in Laois but they were never as willing to give the same commitment as I got in Kildare. They didn't have the commitment or the same drive." But others there during O'Dwyer's four-year stint put that down as an understatement.
"Micko didn't care after a while because there was nothing he could do about what was going on," says a source familiar with what went on at the time. "But in Kildare guys would run up mountains for that man just because he said so. In Laois they needed explanations. Now that wasn't all of them but there were boys there who would fake injury during laps just to get out of them. All the talent in the world and most of it wasted in that place."
During O'Dwyer's final year, the most successful manager of them all was questioned by a side with just a single provincial title to their name. They ridiculed his methods, demanded change and modernisation and got the beating of a lifetime against Dublin. They didn't learn from that either though because O'Dwyer was far from the only manager to suffer at their hands. When Liam Kearns came to the county in 2007, it was to move forward a career that had seen him take Limerick to the brink of a Munster title. But there was a stage when he couldn't even find a player able to captain Laois. Ross Munnelly was said to be too selfish on the ball, Joe Higgins and Tom Kelly didn't show up for the league and after that there was a void when it came to finding a leader.
And Kearns faced far more startling problems than finding a recipient for an armband. Two players in the side had tried to move towards professionalism, refusing to play for Laois until they were sponsored to do so. What had once been ripe and vibrant was rotten to the core. A member of the Laois set-up at the time who wishes to remain nameless takes it further.
"They were put on a pedestal in Laois after winning those minor titles. If you go in to a pub there are pictures on the wall, there's someone there to buy them a pint and remind them of when they won underage All Irelands. You get that respect for winning senior titles in other counties. And they are making the same mistakes. Before it was Beano and Munnelly, now it's Donie Kingston and Tierney who are elevated too high. Some young guys go into the dressing room and think they rule it. The older guys never put them in their place. No leadership. It's gone too far in Laois and there's no going back. Mentally it's frightening just how weak they are."
Even current manager Seán Dempsey has experienced it and he's only in his first year. A former under-21 manager who dropped Donie Brennan before a 2006 All Ireland semi-final, he was forced to do it again this season officially for alcohol-related breaches of discipline but unofficially for a lack of effort in training. Yet within days, Brennan's club manager Nicky McGrath wrote to a local paper. "If this is correct then I would suggest that at least 50 per cent of the panel should have been dropped," he said.
It's not a coincidence that the only times Laois managed to act as a normal group of footballers were in '03 and '05, the year they captured Leinster and the year they peaked. Since then things have been out of control.
Late last year the players were all given gym membership, as was the case in Kildare, but last Saturday it was clear which group had been pushing themselves to the limit eight months ago. On top of that, three nights training each week doesn't cover for three nights socialising in the same week and while such accusations are aimed at limited numbers on the panel, last Saturday also showed that you can't cover for a colleague at the highest level.
In truth Dempsey neither commanded nor demanded respect from this side but if they weren't willing to respect O'Dwyer, then who will they respect? And when Dempsey realises he'd be better off doing pretty much anything else, who will want to take over such a group? After all, you can't force heart and dedication on a team and it appears they aren't going to force it upon themselves.
Not until Friday did the panel get back into training after their mauling six days previous. In the intervening period many had seen their pictures on the walls and glimpsed back at better days. They might have realised then that their future is buried deeply in the past.