Johnny Moloney, in typical shooting style for Tullamore,
THE words extraordinary and 2020 have gone hand in hand this year as people adjust to a very different reality under Covid-19 guidelines and lockdowns but Tullamore senior footballers have brought it to new levels.
A shock first round defeat by Cappincur and an expected second round one by Rhode left them on the verge of an exit – however, a fortunate win by Clara over Cappincur saved their bacon and they qualified for the semi-finals with an excellent last round win over Clara coupled with Rhode's win over Cappincur.
Then in the semi-final against Ferbane, Tullamore required the drama of Offaly's first penalty shootout to book their place in the final against Rhode. As always Johnny Moloney has played a pivotal role in their year.
Joint captain with Paul McConway, he has been in sensational form at full forward and is as important to Tullamore as Niall McNamee is to Rhode. The lockdown actually served him well as it gave him additional time to recover from a nasty navicular stress fracture in his foot – an injury that ruled him out for seven months and he only got the all clear to play two weeks before that Cappincur game. He is grateful to Offaly team physio, Alex Horgan, praising her for her work with him and Dr Pat O'Neill in Dublin for getting him right.
Now 29 years of age with his 30th birthday fast approaching, Moloney was a sub when Tullamore won the Senior Football Championship in 2007 and were beaten by Rhode in the 2008 final. He has been an ever present on the team since making his debut in 2009 and won a senior medal in 2013, when Rhode were beaten in the final.
A remarkably versatile player, he has played mainly at centre half back for Offaly but Tullamore have used him as a ball winning, scoring full forward in recent years – he is also two footed, equally adept at scoring off both and he kicked spectacular points with left and right in extra time of the semi-final win. In the penalty shootout, he emerged as a pivotal figure, scoring his first and then missing his second in sudden death but was let off the hook when Shane Nally also missed.
Moloney took time out last week to speak about all of that and more.
It has been an incredible year for Tullamore. I presume after the second round you didn't think you would be talking before a county final?
“I definitely didn't. After the first two results we were going into the Clara game just wanting to win. We didn't even talk about the score difference. I think we had to win by more than two not to be in a relegation match but we didn't even talk about that. We hadn't even got a win up to then. Then when the game started, we were a bit nervous and Clara could have got a few scores to get ahead of us. Once we got going, confidence started building and when we smelt a bit of blood we kept going and we turned around the scoring difference which got us through.
“Straight after the game I was quite confident that we were through. I didn't know the result of the other game but I had a feeling that it would be unlikely we would lose out. We had got such a good win, we had turned around an awful lot. To be honest we were a bit lucky as well but you take your luck when you can.”
Cappincur are small, quite noisy neighbours who do almost everything, shopping, socialising, school etc in Tullamore outside of the GAA. What did it feel like when Tullamore lost to them in the first round?
“We are the town team and in fairness to Cappincur, it is a small place. It is incredible really what they are doing. Pound for pound, you could argue that they are the strongest team in the championship if you look at the pool of players they are drawing at. They are still improving and they will be even more credible next year I feel but after that game, yeah, it was very disappointing. I've said before, a lot of credit goes to Cappincur, they are a damn good team. We only lost by a point as well, people forget that and we had a few new faces we brought in. That really stood to them. Look it was a game we were expected to win and I won't lie to you, I was fierce disappointed.”
How difficult was the Rhode group game? While Tullamore have beaten them in semi-finals and finals, you have to go back a long way to when you beat them in a group game.
“I haven't beaten them in a group game. It was a funny feeling. We did an awful lot of work this year, we started good and early. Even a lot of our younger players were working on strength and conditioning last October, November time. They are very hungry players. We still had a bit of confidence and wanted to put in a performance. We knew it would be tough. We ended up well beaten but there were a few green shoots in terms of our younger fellows had improved and had got another game. Aaron Leavy was sent off at a stage when we were still battling away. We lost by nine points and it could have been a bit more. I think Rhode are going better now than they have been in the last three or four years. They were more impressive that day than I have ever experienced playing against them in the last three or four years. It was a bit of a rude awakening but we learnt a lot of lessons and knew the level we had to get to. You learn an awful lot from losses and it brought on the team in a funny way.”
I know the Ferbane game went to penalties but Tullamore deserved to win?
“We are delighted we are in the final. Penalties isn't ideal. Ideally it would be nice to get a replay and there would be no debate then. It is what it is. It was exciting for the neutral and punter. We are thrilled that we won because it must be very disappointing for Ferbane in the lottery that is penalties.”
What did it feel like when you put that penalty over the bar?
“I had only prepared mentally to take one. I didn't realise the same five went again. I knew where I was hitting my first one from a few days before the game. We had practiced and we had a fair idea who was taking them – it is a bit frantic after the game because some people are subbed off. I hit it there for the first one and that was grand. I just wasn't mentally prepared to take a second, I thought I was done and dusted after the first. Maybe that bit of mental preparation went against me. To be honest you are completely zoned out when you miss, you are just walking back and you don't know what is going to happen. You still have a slight chance and lucky for me Shane Nally did more or less the same thing. It was very disappointing at the time and a great sense of relief then. I wasn't looking forward to the third one coming around.”
Would you prefer if the same players weren't taking the second one if sudden death?
“If I knew about it, I would probably have a plan but that is only me. I know the likes of Shane Dooley could still be there taking penalties and scoring them away. Ciaran Burns the same and Ciaran Egan. It doesn't make much difference, I just hadn't my homework done properly.”
How difficult has this year been with Covid and shutdowns?
“It has been very challenging for everyone but it is great to get back playing. It is the only outlet people really have. Only 200 can go to games and it is disappointing for your supporters and casual fans. We are making the best fist of it we can, we are following the guidelines and there is logic for why it is this way. The way Offaly is going at the minute, anything can happen and you have to be prepared for that. For us the two week lockdown in the middle of the championship was really good for us. It got us another two weeks under the belt to regroup and focus. We had a few knocks and niggles and Paul McConway played against Ferbane. He was just about playing and those two weeks made the difference there. We have managed to make the best of it.”
People talk about Tullamore coming from nowhere to win championships but it doesn't happen that often?
“I have only played in one final. I won all the medals coming up apart from U-16 and made my senior debut in 2009. We were beaten in an U-12 final and we were going for six in a row. It was only really ourselves and Rhode at underage at that time but underage medals count for very little if you aren't bringing them through to adult and giving them the proper platform to develop.”
The fall off in Tullamore from underage to adult is way more severe than in other clubs?
“It probably is a town thing. There is a huge fall off. In my time, on the senior team now is Michael Brazil. Declan Hogan is two years younger but would have played on the age group ahead of him, and Kevin O'Brien. I can't think of anyone else. We won a minor and two U-21s. That is the way it goes.”
When you were growing up, it was obvious that you were an outstanding talent but there was a fear or an expectation in GAA that you would play rugby more than football, more because of your father Tom (a former president of Tullamore Rugby Club and long time rugby activist who incidentally has done trojan work as an Offaly GAA administrator in recent years) than anything else. Was that a possibility?
“I played a good bit of firsts up and down but I was only an all right rugby player to be honest. People thought I would go to rugby more because of my dad. Myself, I was always mad about football. There was never any doubt. I don't think I played a full year of rugby since I was U-16 because the second Offaly minors started or Offaly senior football training would start, I would stop playing rugby then and just play football. Maybe a small bit of perception there but it was always football for me. My first memory of any sporting event was the 1997 Leinster football final. I was six, going seven and that was my first memory of Croke Park and Offaly playing. It was one of the big reasons I wanted to play football. Even though I was at the 1998 All-Ireland hurling final and loved the hurling, football was always my thing. I played underage hurling with Tullamore and the reason I stopped hurling was to make the Offaly minor football team. I was only a very midland, mediocre hurler. I felt I'm good at football, I like football and I'm happy to play football. I've no regrets.”
People think Tullamore can regularly win championships by coming from nowhere but it is rare?
“It is rare. It has happened and we can do it but it is not as frequent as people think. Since the '70s, we only have five or six championships. But what I would say is when you do start getting a few results and you do get into a final, you have incredible momentum built up so you always have a chance. We are going in as heavy underdogs against Rhode. I have played with serious players in college and I think Niall McNamee is ahead of them all. Paul McPadden came on the last day and he has played with Offaly. It shows the calibre they have. We know we have a chance of performing at least because otherwise we will be beaten out the gate.”
There is no point in saying anything else, in terms of performance you are absolutely pivotal to Tullamore. Does that lend to pressure or do you forget it when you go out on the field?
“Ah no, not really pressure. You just go out to play. I would always be putting pressure on myself to perform. I am very critical of how I play and always look at things I can do better and practicing different things. I think everyone should be putting pressure on themselves to perform. It doesn't always work out that way. Just go in there with a good mindset. Me playing well is a reflection of the whole team. I can't play well without my team mates. I try and give them the best platform to play and they do the same for me. That is how we operate. Our big thing here is that we all do our jobs the best we can to give everyone else the best chance to perform and Tullamore the best chance of winning. Us as a team put pressure on one another to play to our potential.”
I was talking to someone during the week who had spoken to you and you were disappointed you had missed the penalty. Yet myself and others could only remember the two points you kicked in extra time, one with each foot. Do you be a bit hard on yourself sometimes?
“Yes, a little bit. I was very disappointed to miss the penalty, just that I wasn't as prepared as I should have been. In the first half, I left a few chances behind me that I would have been disappointed with. A lot of people did a lot of good work and it is my job to score them. I knew at half time, I had to shape up a lot as I wasn't really hitting my stats whereas a lot of the other boys were and I had to get up to their level. I would be fairly critical of myself. If you told me what I did poorly, I would know what you were going to say before you said it.”
Yet most people would talk about the point with the left and right in extra time. I presume you focus on that stuff as well, the positives?
“Ah Jesus, yeah. Don't get me wrong. There is the good and the bad. There is no such thing as the perfect game. That is what you are always chasing but you never find it. Trying to get there is the thing that drives you. I am 29 going 30 and I have had a few big enough injuries. I feel fresh enough because I have missed so much and I still feel I am improving. That is what I am going to continue to do for as long as I can, stay trying to get better and there is always things you can work on. If you start thinking you are the finished article, you will soon come down to earth. It is a balance. Of course, you have to give yourself some credit but it is important you keep it all in a sense of reality,. You are not going to be perfect but everyone does good things as well.”
Obviously you are a two footed player which is unique. Some times when you play, you seem to favour your left but you kicked your penalties with the right. Which is your strongest foot?
“I am right footed. I was encouraged by my father at home to kick with both feet. He was probably looking at the likes of Matt Connor and he said if you want to be a good footballer, you have to be able to kick with both feet. I took that very literal when I was a young fellow. When I was 10, I was playing with both feet but I am more comfortable with my right foot. I can kick with a few more styles with my right foot. I have certain limitations with my left but I am very aware of them. It probably is a point that I go onto my left a bit and sometimes I would be better served going onto my right because it is a bit trustier.”
If you got a ball 40 metres out with no one on you, which would you kick with?
“This sounds bad but it would depend on where I am in relation to the goals and on the wind. If the wind is going left to right, it is probably a left footed kick. A right footed kick wouldn't be as good because the curl you need to get on the ball would be going against the wind. It is years of practice and I would be totally confident in taking on a shot on my left as much as my right.”
You have played centre half back, midfield and full forward. Which do you prefer and it is it hard being moved around?
“Naturally, centre back is my favourite position but once you get a good run in games, you enjoy whatever position you are in if you are doing well. With Offaly, nearly all my football has been centre back and that is where I play my best football with Offaly. I enjoy playing there. It is very natural for me. With Tullamore, I play a lot of football in the full forward line. My favourite position is centre back but I enjoy playing full forward with Tullamore. It is much different playing full forward intercounty rather than club, there is no point in saying anything else. It is easier for me to transition into the forwards for club than for Offaly. Look, I would play anywhere once I am playing.”