Ger Rafferty, Paul Corrigan, Ciaran Daly, Declan Kelly, David Connolly, Ciaran Grennan and Alan Mulhall at the presentation of medals.
OFFALY'S All-Ireland U-20 football winning manager Declan Kelly has thrown the gauntlet down to his young players, challenging them to take the next step into senior level and stating that their attitude and willingness to do things will determine where the county goes.
Kelly was speaking in the Tullamore Court Hotel as the Offaly side that won a sensational All-Ireland U-20 Football Championship title in 2021 were presented with their Leinster and All-Ireland medals by one of the county's most iconic footballers and cherished individuals, Matt Connor.
Kilclonfert man Kelly has served four years as Offaly U-20 manager and last year's Leinster and All-Ireland wins created a wave of excitement and jubilation in the county.
With John Maughan's reign as Offaly senior football manager likely to officially end in the coming days, Kelly and senior coach Tomas O'Se will be the initial front runners to replace him – the possibility of Kelly and the former Kerry star coming together in a managerial package may be investigated by the County Board.
All of that, however, is for another day and last night's medals presentation was a great occasion of celebration as the successful players were joined by family and friends. There was a serious element to the night, however, and Kelly touched on it in a passionate address to the packed function room.
Questioned by master of ceremonies Brian Gavin, Kelly said he could not be in Croke Park for Offaly's Tailteann Cup defeat by Westmeath but he stated that the county is now at a “crossroads” and the future will be determined by these young players, what they are willing to do and how much they want to succeed at the highest level.
“They are good lads. Listen lads all I want to say to ye is it is where ye want to go from here. I wasn't in Croke Park last Sunday. It is a bit of a crossroads we are at now at the moment. It is where ye want to go. Are ye happy with a Leinster and All-Ireland U-20? The big thing now is to push it on. That is where we are. I would be hoping to see it in the next three to five years. There is a core of ye well capable if ye apply yourselves and that is what it is down to. We are hoping for bigger days ahead.”
He spoke about the excitement Offaly's U-20 success created, especially younger generations who hadn't seen county teams winning.
“We were very lucky growing up, we would have seen a bit of it. We saw the hurling guys and we vaguely remember Matt and 1982. For us it was great to see that and for our father's and that generation, it was great to see it again, massive really.”
Kelly has won a reputation as an astute, tough task master who doesn't suffer fools easily and he was fulsome in his praise for the backing received from the County Board as he attempted to change the culture among young county footballers.
He admitted that it takes time to change things.
“It does if you want to do it your own way. That's not being hard on things but to try and put your stamp on things, you get a year and I was lucky enough with the present County Board and the previous County Board. You were listened to a little bit in what you wanted to do.”
He recalled Offaly going 2-6 to no score down against Kildare in the Leinster semi-final in his first year in charge on their way to suffering a heavy beating as Jimmy Hyland ran riot. Selector David Connolly was his eye in the stand and he frantically contacted him for guidance. “Davy, what to you think. Well it is looking no better up here than it is down there Declan, that's all I can say. Like everything, you could have been ran after year one. That is the big thing, if you have your own ideas and you are getting backing from County Boards and that, it does help.
“You can say they are great to win Leinsters and All-Irelands but to try and put standards in, it takes time. That doesn't happen in one year. We were very lucky that we got backing from a lot of people who said keep going the way you are going.”
He talked about his back room team, the selectors, Ger Rafferty (St Rynagh's), David Connolly (Bracknagh) and Ciaran Grennan (Ballycumber), team liaison officer Ciaran Daly, kit man Paul Corrigan and others. He made particular reference to the influence of Tullamore's Ken Furlong who was a selector in year two before going on to become Offaly minor football manager.
“One of the things we mentioned after year one was that at minor level we needed to get standards a bit higher and in fairness to the County Board, they would have seen that. We were half side tracked at a meeting one night we were going in to review year two and review going forward and they asked Ken to go in with the minors. It was a vital appointment to be fair. They were getting a bit of a dart at minor level before they came up near us which was no harm.”
Furlong managed Offaly to the 2020 Leinster minor football final, where they suffered a narrow defeat to Meath. That final was played in 2021 because of Covid and a number of that panel were quickly drafted into the Offaly U-20 squad. The U-20s played Wexford a week later with John Furlong starting; Cormac Egan started in the next game against Westmeath, Tom Hyland came in at full back when Kieran Dolan got injured and others also featured during the campaign.
Kelly agreed that the introduction of these players was pivotal.
“It was. We were lucky we were able to play them in a few games. You could see there was a core there conditioning wise and who could play football. If it happened that we could get going, they were definitely going to give you a lift. We had a week between the lads being defeated and we playing Wexford in the first round. We threw John (Furlong) in straight away at centre back and over the next couple of games, a few more lads were starting. That was it really and they were winning.”
Offaly's very impressive Leinster final win over Dublin created huge emotion in the county.
“To be fair, we didn't fear them and the lads didn't fear them. We said going in, they are probably going to get goals against you and it is how you react to that situation. . . We were coming up to five minutes before half time and they got the second goal but we got a point back. I remember Ger (Rafferty, selector) saying at half time, we are in a good spot here, we are only a couple of points down. You knew you had a chance at that stage. The one thing about Dublin is if you give them the ball they are going to go through you at some stage. You have to push them and take them on.
“We are here because of the lads, there is no other reason. We can put plans in place but if the lads don't listen to you and do their own thing.. . . We are here because of the players and that is the one thing that needs to be acknowledged.”
Offaly supporters really got behind the team from then on and Cork were beaten in the All-Ireland semi-final.
“When you hear the chanting coming and we were curtailed with numbers that night but there was fair noise coming out of the stand with ten minutes to go. The whole thing built a little bit for that. We were all mad for the last fifteen odd years to try and get a Leinster at some level. You got one and then the whole thing went from there.”
Offaly beat Roscommon in the All-Ireland final in Croke Park and the manager joked about it not being in the nature of Offaly teams to win games the easy way.
“If ever you want to win an All-Ireland final, you want to win it up there and that was the big one. It can go two ways and it is how you perform in finals that is the big thing. In fairness to fellows, they played well, though they made it hard. I don't think Offaly win matches well. It is sort of the nature of us really at all grades. We keep it nice and tight and we sort of fall over the line with a few minutes to go. You are probably the better team but we keep the auld heart rates ticking anyway if nothing else.”
The presentation of medals was a truly special occasion with a great atmosphere on the night as people celebrated Offaly's return to the enclosure of champions. Leinster Council chairman Pat Teehan, Offaly GAA chairman Michael Duignan, special guest Matt Connor and team captains, Kieran Dolan and Cathal Donoghue also spoke very well on the night – see report and pictures in next week's Tullamore and Midland Tribune.
The extended panel that were there for the All-Ireland final were presented with Leinster and All-Ireland medals and were as follows:
Harry Balsiger, Cathal Flynn, Darragh Fynn (Ferbane), Peter Bennett, Keith O'Neill, Jamie Guing (Clonbullogue), Aaron Brazil (Shannonbrige), Jack Bryant, Kieran Dolan, Sean O'Toole (Shamrocks), Oran Connolly, Cathal Ryan (Daingean), Sean Courtney (Cappincur), Ed Cullen, Cormac Delaney, Adam Kelly (Clara), Mikey Cunningham, Fionn Dempsey, Eoin Hyland, Tom Hyland (Bracknagh), Cathal Donoghue (Kilcormac-Killoughey), Ciaran Egan, Cormac Egan, John Furlong, Oisin Keenan-Martin (Tullamore), Rory Egan, Briain Nolan, Lee Pearson (Edenderry), Killian Kavanagh, Sean McCloskey (Walsh Island), Marcus Keena (Ballycumber), Aaron Kellaghan, Gavin Young (Rhode), Eoin Sawyer (Castleknock), Morgan Tynan (Ballinagar).
Back room team: Manager, Declan Kelly; Selectors, Ger Rafferty, David Connolly and Ciaran Grennan; Goalkeeping coach, Alan Mulhall; Strength and conditioning coach, Conal Mahon and Reece Cuddihy; Logistics, Ciaran Daly; Secretary, Elaine Kelly-Dunne; Kitman, Paul Corrigan; Physios, Aisling Fox and Joe Smyth.
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