The Offaly U-20 squad and backroom team on Friday evening.
THERE was a truly magical evening of celebration in the Tullamore Court Hotel on Friday evening when the Offaly side that won the All-Ireland U-20 Football Championship title in such sensational style last year were presented with their medals.
Offaly's success came as a bolt from the blue as they embarked on a great championship adventure, culminating in an All-Ireland triumph that most Offaly people thought they would never witness again.
Their championship campaign had started slowly but positively with early wins over Wexford and Westmeath. It had took off with a superb Leinster final win over Dublin while Cork and Roscommon were steamrolled in the All-Ireland semi-final and final.
As Offaly's season had gathered pace, they displayed vast improvement as a team and individuals, playing football with terrific pace and flair. The quality of their football, the open way in which they played it created a wave of excitement in their own county and won they admirers throughout the country.
This excitement is being replicated this year by the minor hurlers who are now preparing for Sunday's All-Ireland final against Tipperary and Kilkenny and this was alluded to by the special guest, Matt Connor when he presented the medals to the team.
Top scorer in Ireland for five years in a row from 1980 to 1984 and outstanding as Offaly won the All-Ireland Senior Football Championship in 1982 and Leinster titles in 1980, '81 and '82, Connor remarked: “A lot of us thought we would never see a team win a Leinster, never mind an All-Ireland but this team were superb. They won it with pure football and there was no luck involved and heart and desire. It was great for the county.”
He spoke about their style of play and speed. “They were superbly fit, they knew their game plan and it was superb all round. It went down very well all over the country and people were really impressed with the way Offaly played. They were a breath of fresh air.”
The Walsh Island man expressed confidence that most of the team will play senior for the county. “I would be surprised if most of them don't eventually play for Offaly seniors in the next few years. They are still young, U-20 is young. It is not like U-21, there is a year extra so I presume a lot of them will play senior.”
Connor concluded by wishing the minor hurlers all the best against Tipperary on Sunday. “Hopefully they will win. They are a great bunch of lads too and they are very like the U-20 team too, full of heart and skill. They have a good game plan and they won't be far away, that is for sure.”
Offaly GAA chairman Michael Duignan thanked Matt Connor for making the presentation, describing him as a “phenemonal man in so many ways who epitomises all that is great about Offaly”.
He thanked the families of players, stating that it had taken a massive effort from the first time they put on a pair of boots to get to where they did last year. “It takes time, it takes dedication, it takes commitment and it takes a love of the game. If you don't put in that time and if you don't coach the basics, you don't have days like this,” he smiled.
He paid a glowing tribute to the manager Declan Kelly and his selectors and backroom team. “It was a great year and we just gathered momentum as we went along. Every person on the backroom team played a part and every little percentage makes a difference. The man who pulled it all together and over the years made some hard calls was Declan Kelly. He was the one manager in Offaly who led and called it as he saw it over the last number of years. He made sure that there were standards applied that maybe other people didn't. Declan Kelly has done a marvelous job in managing this wonderful group of people.”
Mr Duignan concluded by saluting the players. “Ye made us all extremely proud. I am very passionate about the county as are the lads involved in me in the County Board and the previous County Board. Everyone involved are all great Offaly people. We have all seen county teams go out and not give everything they have but that finger will never be pointed at this group of people. The passion, the heart, the guts, the determination, the skill level, the belief, confidence is what it takes to win an All-Ireland and ye had it in spades. It was an absolute pleasure for everyone of us from Offaly to follow ye and watch ye playing football, to watch ye grow and the way ye handled yourselves on and off the field.
“You were an absolute credit with the way ye represented Offaly. There is a massive future ahead of ye. We could have got to another All-Ireland final this year but these things happen in sport. Stick together over the next few years, they are critical to this group. We have a few injuries to clear up and we will look after this as best as we can. We will look after this group and let's try and get Offaly back up there at senior level. Ye will be the driving forces. There will be lads coming in behind ye that look up to you so much. The minor hurlers look up to ye and ye gave them huge inspiration last year. Well done on winning the Leinster and All-Ireland. It was absolutely massive but mostly well done on the way ye did it. Ye were an absolute credit to everyone of ye.”
Leinster Council chairman Pat Teehan gave glowing praise to the team. “We regularly hear criticism of how football is played – negative formations … and blanket defences …. but our lads played with the exuberance of youth. And it was wonderful to witness …. Young men clearly hugely enjoying themselves – enjoying their football and playing it with a smile on their faces.
“Their exploits gave a huge lift to everyone during a time when we were all consumed by the ravages of Covid. The manner in which the team performed and represented the county, is a huge credit everyone involved, to Offaly County Board under the leadership of Michael Duignan, but in particular to Declan Kelly and his backroom staff …. and be assured that the people of The Faithful County are very appreciative of your heroic efforts …. and the pride and happiness it brought to all.”
The Coolderry man added: “Arriving at Croke Park to take on The Rossies on Final day was like a throwback to the 1980’s and 90’s … when Offaly teams were regular visitors to Headquarters for huge games.
“The euphoria which greeted the final whistle was a build-up of elation which had been locked away for over 20 years. The image of Shane Lowry doing a jig in the Premium Level allied to the raw emotion on Martin Furlong’s face as he declared he never thought he’d see the day, showed how much this victory meant to the people of Offaly.
“Once again the green, white and gold adorned Croke Park. A few ghosts may have been laid to rest – but more importantly Offaly a new generation of Faithful heroes had arrived. Young men that schoolchildren all over the county will seek to emulate in the coming years.
“Every county needs role models, every club needs role models … you are the future and your epic performances will ensure those coming behind you will fear nothing or nobody.
“Your victory told our schoolkids … emphatically … that Offaly are not just here to make up the numbers. Offaly can and should aspire to the greatest heights. And I’m sure you have been a great inspiration to our minor hurlers, who hopefully will emulate your achievements with All-Ireland success on Sunday week
“The man who will present your well-deserved medals here this evening reached the greatest heights and was probably the greatest footballers I have seen, and if any of you have not watched the videos of him on you tube, I recommend you do it now. Like yourselves he brought a smile to supporters’ faces – not just in Offaly but around the country. I know that Matt Connor is as proud of you all as the rest of us …. and would like nothing better than for you to continue your success story.”
He concluded: “Indeed a number of you have already progressed to the Offaly Senior Football set-up … and if you continue to apply the same dedication and commitment that you have to date then there is no reason why further success will not come your way.
“In conclusion I want to thank you most sincerely for the greatest of sporting summers. Many people outside the county have remarked to me since on the manner of your performances ….. the positivity, the resilience, the skill and the sheer joy in your play. You made people everywhere happy … but you made Offaly people ecstatic and proud. =You most certainly answered the prayers of the Faithful.”
The Offaly captain, Kieran Dolan and vice captain Cathal Donoghue were interviewed by MC Brian Gavin.
Dolan declared: “We probably only dreamed of winning a Leinster really. We knew the team we had. I remember meeting the Shamrocks boys at the start of the year and they said a Leinster is definitely on the cards with the bench we had and the minors being in a Leinster final. Once we won the Leinster, I thought the performance against Cork was our best and once we got to the final, we knew we were going to win.”
He thanked the management team. “I remember hearing about Declan when I was minor that he called it very tight. If lads weren't at training, they were dropped and that is part of the reason we won. From four years ago he was building and if lads were out drinking and not going training, they were dropped. We were committed. I was in it three years and Ger Raff (Rafferty, selector) always wanted a bit of blood spilt at training and it was no harm.”
Donoghue declared: “It was a brilliant year. At the start of the year, our plans were on Leinster. I remember saying to the mother that if we met Dublin in the Leinster final, we would beat them. Me Kieran and Jack (Bryant) did three years in there and we under achieved at the start but we got going and came on in the last year. We were as fit as fiddles coming up to the All-Ireland final and that got us over the line in the end.”
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