TWO months ago Offaly football was at a very low ebb.
Gerry Cooney had resigned as manager in the wake of a bitterly disappointing league campaign which had seen Offaly win just one of their seven games with some key players opting off the panel.
It ended with a defeat against a previously winless Tipperary sealing Offaly’s relegation to the bottom tier and showing in microcosm the stark lack of confidence that pervaded throughout the side.
After taking an inordinate amount of time to find a replacement for Tom Cribbin at the end of the 2011 season, this time the Offaly County Board Executive took responsibility for the situation and acted quickly to get Tom Coffey in place within 48 hours of Gerry Cooney’s departure.
The Rhode man had been one of the favourites to succeed Tom Cribbin but he withdrew from the process last October as the never ending appointment process dragged into a third month.
Speaking ahead of this Sunday’s clash with Kildare, the Rhode man acknowledged that he took some time before taking the job in April.
“When the call came, first of all you have to size up the situation to see exactly what position I was in as regards work obviously and obviously I had an involvement with Athlone as well and family life as well. So yes I did take time out to think about it but after putting the bit of thought into it and talking at home and seeing would it work, I made the decision and I’m delighted I did.”
Once he and his selectors made the decision to take the reigns, they have been busy preparing the team for the Kildare game.
“The key was trying to get in and get stuck into the middle of it and make sure that we got familiarised with all the players. It took a few weeks to get sorted out but in fairness there has been a great commitment. They’re a great bunch of lads and in fairness they’ve pulled out all the stops and put in a big effort but obviously we know we have an uphill battle coming as well.”
To help prepare the team, Offaly have played a large number of challenge matches which Tom Coffey believes gives the management team a better chance to appraise players.
“I think there’s only so much training you can do and I think it’s important for us to give a lad a jersey against different opposition and see what stage was he at. I think we’d have learned a lot over the last few games and we’ve changed things around and we’d be hopeful at this stage we’d be fairly confident on near enough what our first 20 or 22 players would be.”
One consequence of playing a high volume of challenge matches is injuries as Tom Coffey acknowledged.
“When you play games there will be injuries but it was something that had to be done. We have a very good medical team there with Paula and they’re working very hard. While there is five or six lads there with injuries, and niggling injuries, we’d be hopeful that some of them would be available.”
After losing to Tipperary in the final game in the league, Offaly looked a broken side and Tom Coffey agreed that one of the challenges he faced was breathing some confidence into the side.
“When we went in there was a little bit of uncertainty. Obviously a few lads had decided to pull off the panel. There was a players meeting and it was a little bit scattered needles to say and they were after being relegated as well. But we soon got to work and got training and they started to chat. I suppose morale was down and there wasn’t enough of players mixing with one another. We got the confidence up reasonably quick. We chatted all the guys and welcomed them in and we obviously put a schedule in front of them. At this stage they’re happy to be in there and they’re all working very hard and trying to improve one another.”
As hard as Offaly have worked, they are still a long way behind in terms of preparation when compared to this Sunday’s opponents.
Appointed in late 2007, Kieran McGeeney has been at the helm of a project that has seen Kildare develop into one of the most physically imposing sides in the country, a fact not lost on Tom Coffey.
“Kildare under McGeeny have brought it to a different level. I suppose they’re nearly like the All Blacks of the rugby world at this stage in Ireland. While there is the Dublins and Tyrones and Armaghs, Kildare would appear to have gone nearly ahead of them in the commitment that he has asked. They’ve a lot of money spent on them, they’ve a lot of effort and hours gone into training and we’re under no illusions as to what we’re up against. I think the important thing is that we go into it in the right frame of mind but at the end of the day we can’t force things either. People will have to not panic and give these guys a chance.”
The Offaly manager doesn’t see too many weaknesses that Offaly could exploit in a well organised Kildare side.
“Most counties in Ireland when you’d look into them and x-ray them and see where’s their strong points, you’d always identify two or three good scoring forwards and maybe a defender or two and maybe a midfielder. But McGeeny would have brought a regime into Kildare that would be very much a 15 man game-plan and the scoring would show that all players would have scored at different times. The two highest scorers would be the two free takers. So really it’s a 15 man outfit.
“They’re very, very good at what they do which is a high work-rate all through the field. They defend in packs and they attack in packs. We need to go at it and try and come up with some way of breaking it down.”
While Sligo pulled off an upset over Galway and Tipperary showed well against Kerry, it would be a major shock if Offaly were to beat Kildare in O’Moore Park next Sunday. Tom Coffey is realistic about his side’s prospects and acknowledges that the most important thing for his side is to perform to the best of their ability.
“I think that that’s what people will be looking for is that we get a performance and that if the game is there for the winning that we go at it but most definitely that we compete and that we leave everything on the field. They’re a great lot of young guys coming up and obviously there’s a few guys who’ve been established for the last few years. They’re after giving it everything for the last few weeks.
“They’ve minded the bodies over the last eight weeks and they’ve trained hard. They’ll be looking forward to getting out there in front of a crowd. At the end of the day it’s all about ourselves. It’s about getting 15 or 20 players on the field, knowing what one another is at and trying to compete.”