By Paul O'Neill
Tracey Lawlor admits a season that threatened to become a disaster for the Laois ladies' football team is actually turning out better than they expected.
On Sunday, Laois will go head-to-head with Dublin in the final of the TG4 Leinster Championship.
Yet just three months ago the provincial decider looked like it would be out of Laois' reach as they desperately battled to avoid relegation to Division Two in the National League.
Some bad defeats – including one which saw them leak 7-10 to Mayo and another where Cork hit them for 3-19 – as well as handing Kerry a walkover, helped to leave them in real danger of making the drop.
In the end the Midlanders managed to do enough to survive and they went on to beat Meath in the last four in Leinster.
Now Laois, whose squad has been hit this term by the loss of several key players, are set to tackle the Dubs.
And long-serving Lawlor – who starred for the county when they landed their only All-Ireland to date in 2001 – says Laois are very much in bonus territory after turning the corner.
She recalled: "Earlier in the year morale was quite low in the squad because a number of players had left to take time out and our results were generally disappointing.
"Expectations were not too high heading into the league and, as it progressed, we knew we had a fight on our hands to stay up.
"Given that our squad is quite young, it was up to the more experienced players like myself to take on more responsibility and try to help those who were still relatively new to the game at this level. It was tough going but thankfully we did enough to retain our place in the top division for next year.
"After the league we left it to one side and regrouped for the championship.
"We knew just how hard it was going to be to get past Meath as they had beaten us in Leinster last year but we got the right result on this occasion. So when you consider how the season has panned out so far for us, it's not as bad as it might have been."
Laois go into the final at Portlaoise as the clear outsiders as they will be up against a Dublin side that is chasing a third title in a row.
But Lawlor feels not having much pressure on them will suit Des Cooney's Laois outfit, who will be missing Anna Moore after she suffered a hand injury in the Meath game.
"It is fine by us that we are the underdogs as it means the burden of expectation is very much on Dublin," said Lawlor.
"However it does not mean that we will not be going out to win. We will certainly give it our best and see where it leaves us at the end of the 60 minutes.
"Quite a few of our squad have never played in a game like this before but that could prove to be a good thing for us because they don't know what to expect and, as a result, should not be afraid of what they might have to face."
And the forward went on: "This will be a massive test for us because Dublin have been one of the best teams in the game over the last 12 years.
"They have some of the finest players around and boast lots of strength in depth too.
"But regardless of how the game goes, the experience should stand to the younger players in our ranks down the line. While we are very much focussed on the final, the future is also important as we try to mould a decent side to challenge for honours on a regular basis."
It remains to be seen, though, if Lawlor will be part of the Laois squad again next year.
She began this season feeling it would be her last playing for her county – but says she has felt the same in other years before opting to play on.
Lawlor concluded: "In recent years I have thought about quitting but each time I got itchy feet and chose to stick at it.
"Playing for Laois has been such a big part of my life for so long that it will be hard to give it up but I know it will have to happen sooner rather than later."
Liberty Insurance All-Ireland Camogie Senior Championship first round, Group 2:
Clare v Kilkenny (Ennis, 2.30), Tipperary v Offaly (The Ragg, 2.30).
TG4 Munster Ladies' Football Senior Championship final: Kerry v Cork (Rathmore, 3.30).
TG4 Leinster Ladies' Football Senior Championship final:
Laois v Dublin (Portlaoise, 3.0).