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30 Jun 2022

'Giving game time to emerging players the right policy for Offaly's Tailteann Cup tilt'

THE MAN BEHIND THE WIRE

'Giving game time to emerging players the right policy for Offaly's Tailteann Cup tilt'

Bernard Allen hasn't seen action in the Tailteann Cup yet.

THE Offaly senior football management are adapting the right policy for the Tailteann Cup, at least in terms of giving young emerging players game time and an opportunity to find their feet in senior county football.

Offaly have some exciting young talent coming up and the Tailteann Cup represents the perfect vehice to start blooding them in.

Several of the Offaly team that won the All-Ireland U-20 Football Championship last year are now preparing to transition into senior county football. Seven of them played in last Sunday's Tailteann Cup final win over Wicklow: Lee Pearson, Rory Egan, Jack Bryant, Keith O'Neill, Morgan Tynan, Cathal Flynn and Kieran Dolan.

Pearson, Egan, O'Neill, Bryant, Flynn and Dolan all got game time in the win over Wexford the previous weeks.

Kieran Dolan and Cathal Flynn had started in the Leinster Senior Football Championship defeat by Wexford a few weeks ago and these games will do the world of good to all those young players.

The Tailteann Cup is a particularly good place for them to find their way. It doesn't have the same pressure as top tier championship football, though that will be the real test for any aspiring county player.

Yet the stakes are big enough. Offaly are hungry to make an impression in the second tier competition. After that bitterly disappointing defeat by Wexford, there were fears that Offaly would not make much of an effort for the Tailteann Cup. In fact these fears were closer to an expectation but Offaly have shown their intent in their two games to date.

They are clearly keen to impress and to give it their very best shot and they have played their two games in a championship like intensity. Their performances have not been flawless. They were very close to a second defeat by Wexford in the first round, surviving on their wits and their error count was way too high that day. It was frustrating to watch Offaly in the second half as they got to within fifty metres of the Wexford goal and then coughed up posssession because of sloppy play.

That could have been down to cobwebs and a few weeks of inactivity after their devastating championship defeat in Wexford Park – manager John Maughan had given his players a couple of weeks off in the wake of that game and they had only returned a couple of weeks before the Enniscorthy game.

It was not down to intent and Offaly did well to win the game from a very difficult situation. The Tailteann Cup gives Offaly the chance to salvage something tangible from a season that could have ended in very disappointing fashion – an early Tailteann Cup defeat on top of a first round championship exit and relegation from Division 2 of the National Football League would have represented a very poor year.

Now they have a chance of winning something. They are not favourites but with New York next up in Tullamore on Saturday, a semi-final is in touching distance. There will be an open draw for the semi-finals which take place in Croke Park and getting to headquarters provides a tantalising carrot. Westmeath and Carlow meet in the other south section quarter-final.

In the north section, Leitrim play Sligo and Fermanagh meet Cavan. Cavan look to have the edge on those teams but again, Offaly would fancy their chances of meeting any of the remaining teams in a semi-final and final. It would be great to get there and a great way to end the season.

For a county with plenty of All-Ireland and Leinster senior football titles, a Tailteann Cup win will occupy a lowly spot on their roll of honour but it is where Offaly are now and it has a purpose to serve.

The Tailteann Cup could be the swansong for some of Offaly's longest serving footballers and it is also likely to be John Maughan's farewell. The Mayo man has given four years of service to Offaly. There may be mixed opinions about him with some supporters and the style of football they are playing but Maughan has been good for Offaly. He came into the job after a traumatic few years and replaced Kerry man, Stephen Wallace after the end of an absolutely chaotic 2018. Despite regularly speaking about the toll of travel from his Castlebar home, he has stayed longer than many people expected and this is his fourth season.

Maughan is likely to pull the plug at the end of this season and it will be the right decision at this stage. He has steadied the ship, raised the bar and tried to change the culture of Offaly football. There won't be much logic to him staying on for a fifth year – from both Maughan's and Offaly's point of view and the time will be ripe to hand the reigns onto the next man. A Tailteann Cup win could change things and there could be a temptation to go for the fifth year – if that happened and Maughan wanted to stay on, it would be very difficult for the Offaly County Board to force a switch but in many ways it would be the perfect way for both parties to call a day to their marriage.

Maughan would walk away with his pride intact and restored after a messy end to his term as Roscommon manager in 2008. He deserves to end his time in Offaly on his own terms and all the smart money is on Offaly having a new management for 2023.

It would have been nice to see Maughan try a more attacking game in the Tailteann Cup, to allow players to show their natural flair more, to attack with freedom and see where this leads them. It hasn't happened to date and is unlikely to happen now – in fairness to Maughan he is aware of the importance of the Tailteann Cup and what a win could do for Offaly and he won't be throwing caution to the wind, no matter how much supporters want to see that.

Niall McNamee, Johnny Moloney and Niall Darby could also be in their last year as county players. They are Offaly's three most experienced players and it is also possible that this trio will step away. They have given vast service. McNamee has been the brightest talent of his generation and his value has been shown in the way he has performed in the Tailteann Cup. Offaly wouldn't have beaten Wexford without him and while they might have got by Wicklow, he was excellent in the first half last Sunday.

McNamee is the one current player who would have made any Offaly team and it will be a surprise if he was to commit again, particularly under new management. Having said that, you never know with him. He announced his retirement for the 2018 season but the lure of inter-county football proved too strong and he came back under John Maughan. He has stayed on since then and has played some of the best football of a long county career that began in 2003. His experience, excellence and know how is a great example to all aspiring young footballers and it is great that some of the U-20s have had the chance of playing alongside him.

Niall Darby owes no one anything. The Rhode man is a perfect example of a county footballer, committed, text book in his approach and doing what he has to do in order to fulfill his potential. He started out as an attacker but reinvented himself as a defender and has had some really good days in the Offaly jersey.

Johnny Moloney has been a tremendous leader for Offaly and he was brilliant at centre half back last Sunday. Moloney has great drive and he is very well capable of going for another year but is now the father of a young child and living and working in Galway. In a recent interview with me, he steered clear of announcing his retirement but his words and body language very much suggested that it is on the cards. It would be good to see Moloney give it one more year as the young players need this type of leadership, experience and guidance but if he decides to go, he is fully entitled to at this stage of his life.

The young players will find their own way anyway and they don't really need anyone to hold their hands. Oisin Keenan-Martin was a sub for the Tailteann Cup against Wexford but has got injured. He was very close and he is another U-20 on the verge of making the step up. His Tullamore club mates, John Furlong and Cormac Egan would have seen plenty of action in the Tailteann Cup only for injuries.

The volume of injuries for those U-20s is the one cloud on a bright horizon. Cormac Egan is recovering from a big hamstring operation and it remains to be seen if he can get fully back from this. John Furlong has had a lot of problems with a groin injury, Jack Bryant was out for a long time with a hamstring injury; Cathal Donoghue has missed the championship and Tailteann Cup with a knee injury; and others have had problems. Lee Pearson has been cramping up in recent games and the volume of injuries, the extent of them in some cases, does raise questions about team preparations. They are answers that non qualified people don't have but the number of injuries for the U-20s is significant and it would be a tragedy if they ended or curtailed the careers of any of these young fliers.

Other fringe players have also got a chance in the Tailteann Cup. It was great to see Tullamore's Diarmuid Egan get a half against Wexford in Enniscorthy and while he was not fully at the pace of the game, he was honest and got an absolutely crucial first half goal. Egan is a work in progress and it will take him time to make the step up to county football. He is unique in that he did not come up through the county development squad system. He played mainly rugby in his younger days, was on the fringe of the Leinster rugby academy system and went to Maynooth University on a scholarship.

He soon gravitated towards the GAA, playing very well as Tullamore won an All-Ireland colleges “B” hurling title a few years ago while it soon became apparent that football was his best game. He took a while to settle in after making his debut for Tullamore senior footballers a couple of years ago. The older brother of Cormac, he progressed each year and was outstanding at centre half forward as Tullamore won the Senior Football Championship last year. His county career could follow a similar trajectory. You couldn't say with certainty that he will make it but he has a lot going for him, a lot of the raw ingredients and the county training, as he develops his physicality, conditioning and athleticism, will bring him on a lot. It is a three year project for Egan. He didn't play county minor or U-20 and there will be very few players who will make it in the future without being in the system from a young age. He will be better next year but will need to be willing to take the hits of not being played or taken off and it is the third year that will determine his future – and if he can establish himself, that will be an absolute credit to him and his determination.

Egan was probably disappointed not to get in last Sunday and possibly deserved that chance after starting in Wexford but it is impossible to satisfy everyone. Clonbullogue's Jack McEvoy also deserves his chance and he came on late on against Wicklow – it is natural that players will be upset when taken off or not played. In fact, as Johnny Moloney said in that recent interview, he would be seriously questioning any county player who was content not to be played.

Dylan Hyland will also have been disappointed. The Raheen man showed some good form in the league and started in the championship against Wexford. He came on against Wexford in the Trailteann Cup but did not come in last Sunday and no doubt, he will be wondering why. He is a left footed player and offers something different to the squad. He certainly looked the part in some of the games this year but like Diarmuid Egan, he must be patient. Unlike Egan, he did play minor and U-21 football for Offaly and he was an exciting prospect at this stage but he went to Australia for a couple of years and is now getting back into the football scheme of things. He is older than Egan but he has to give himself the time to establish himself fully and that is also a three year project – if he isn't making his mark then and management haven't made the decision for him, he will be entitled to call it a day then.

The person getting the rawest deal of all is Bernard Allen. He has been an unused sub in the two Tailteann Cup games and you would wonder at that. Allen started against Wexford in the championship and it didn't really happen for him as he got one point from a free. However, it would be wrong to scapegoat any one individual for what was a collective and wide embracing failure while Offaly were injury stricken on the day - key forwards such as Niall and Ruari McNamee and Jack Bryant were casualties along with longer term injuries, including Cian Farrell.

The Tubber man has been an excellent servant for Offaly football but has fallen down the pecking order this year. He made his debut in 2011 and is now within touching distance of 100 competitive appearances – he is on 91 at the moment. There are similarities to be drawn between him and Niall Darby. Two extremely dedicated players who do almost everything by the book, have such desire to be county footballers and live the right lifestyle. They are an example to others and Allen's absence in the Tailteann Cup has been noticed by many supporters. He is not a superstar footballer, he has had his share of mediocre days and some of his best football has been played in the league early in the year rather than the championship in the summer. He has, however, also performed in the championship, had some excellent days and his accuracy, particularly off his trusted left foot, has been a real asset to Offaly down the years. You would imagine that he would have flourished against opponents such as Wexford and Wicklow in the Tailteann Cup and it will be interesting to see if he gets a chance against New York on Saturday.

From the outside looking in, he deserves it but it is a call for management and only them and those inside the camp truly know what is going on and why decisions are being taken.

Ironically, Allen could be providing real example and leadership to the younger players from the sideline. He is bound to be upset but you just have to admire the way he has taken those hits on the chin, stayed with it and not walked off the panel. It is too easy for players to walk away now if they aren't getting their way or what they think is their dues. They put their own interests ahead of the overall good and the ability to take rejection is an essential part of sport, not to mention life. It is always sad to see a player walk away, apart from the rare situations where relationships have broken down completely between a player and management or he is at the centre of a complete miscarriage of justice. Allen's omission is certainly very questionable but it won't involve Amnesty International and it is great to see him keeping his shoulder to the wheel. Players need to do that. You can only start fifteen, only five can come in and there will be six other players not used, not to mention the others who don't make the matchday 26.

It is important for players to remember that they are playing for their county, their jersey, their supporters, their people and not a manager who will always be only a ship passing in the night. Offaly have plenty of exciting young footballers emerging while Cian Farrell will hopefully be back next year. Cian Johnson is back playing with Ferbane and may come back into contention. Peter Cunninham will probably be back after his Army Tour in Syria. - Allen still has plenty to offer and hopefully he will be around to make that century of appearances in the coming two years. The competition for places will be red hot and young and older players must be able to take decisions on the chin.

There will always be cases like that in county panels, ones where managements take stances on certain players and it is inevitable that there will be unhappy players. That is par for the territory and the really important thing here is that players are sticking with it and Offaly are giving the Tailteann Cup a go.

A win in the Tailteann Cup won't change anything and won't mean a whole lot but it will help. It will help the young players and it will help build confidence in Offaly football. It will help the county transition into the group of counties behind the real top tier and that is the only achievable immediate target.

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