DELIGHTED with the way his team have performed and the collective and individual improvement displayed by players, Offaly senior hurling manager Michael Fennelly is concerned about the extent of the step up to the National Hurling League Division 1 next year.
Having earned promotion from Division 2A in very impressive style this year, Offaly will find themselves in with hurling's big guns next year and the Kilkenny man believes it is too big of a jump.
Speaking after Offaly concluded their campaign with a runaway win over Wicklow, Fennelly was asked about the need to keep their feet on the ground, despite their very encouraging form.
“We have to keep our feet on the ground. We are making baby steps at the moment, we are not going up four or five steps here. They are baby steps. We are going in the right direction but we have to stay composed and working on those areas. We are going from Division 2A and we could be playing the All-Ireland champions next year.
"For me, that jump is too high. It doesn't make a lot of sense. Look at Westmeath, they are at a level higher than us at the moment in terms of league and Joe McDonagh and they have been trounced, thirty odd points a game. To me, that is not good for a team. You need to be playing teams who are above you but not two or three steps above you.
“On the other side, if I look on it from a general point of view, mixing the two groups is good in one sense. It keeps things interesting. There is still a huge amount of competitive games. I know years ago that Division 1B wasn't as competitive. There were always one or two teams but then you would have seen that one team going through to a league final and winning it. The games weren't overly competitve and that is the way the GAA were looking on it. That makes sense on that side but for a team coming up, that doesn't make sense. It is more than a big step, it doesn't make sense.
“You are looking to transition to the next level. If you come up against Tipperary, Limerick, people that are contending for the All-Ireland, Kilkenny's, that is a step too far and how is that helpful? For any team coming up, you want to come up to the next level and not three or four levels.
He was happy with the way the team performed in Sunday's big 1-32 to 0-10 win over Wicklow.
“Job done, we applied ourselves very well and I am really happy with the boys and how they performed, especially in the first half.
“We really flipped the team around because as I keep saying, there is huge competition between each and every player here. The boys got a good chances to show their skills today and we racked up 11 points in the first 15 minutes or so. A really good attitude and it was good because I was conscious of coming in here and being a little bit flat, of lads taking it for granted. Obviously, we had the league won but I still wanted a big performance and that was really important in preparation for the championship coming up.”
Were you tempted to mix a team with fringe and established players?
“There was merit in it but I felt there were so many lads who were close to the 26 and close to the first fifteen, they deserved a full game today and that is what we went with. I thought of having maybe one player per line and the more we looked at it, we said, no, these lads are eager to go. Let's let them off.”
He didn't feel any need to introduce established players during the game, apart from Ben Conneely who came on because he is captain.
“There was no need. The boys were hungry for a proper sixty/seventy minute game. We tried to give as many as possible a game. Really, really good and I am delighted for the boys. Last week when we beat Down, that was a big one for us. I wasn't sure whether we would go through or not. In my own mind, the Wicklow game has to be done and just have to perform and play well and hopefully get the result. Now I am really happy, I am settled now.”
Fennelly hopes to get quality work in now before the Christy Ring Cup against Sligo on July 3.
“We will get back on Wednesday with an outdoor session. We need to ramp things up a bit more. The lads know there is capacity to improve and improve our fitness levels. We will get straight back into it next week. The year is so compact and short which is good in one sense. It keeps momentum going. There is not a big long haul of a four or five week break. The lads are eager.”
Before the league, he talked about the challenge of competing against four Joe McDonagh Cup teams. Asked was this just a guise to take the pressure off the team, he said:
“I genuinely felt we were in a period of transition and I stand by that. We had so many younger players in with us and so little time to work collectively with them. I was always conscious of that but I think the development of some of the younger guys from last year in training and the fact that in December, a lot of them took their own initiative to get back into the gym and start putting on a bit of muscle and strength. To try and recover from injury because we have a few guys who have a chronic injury. They were straight away back rehabbing and that was without us having to say it. That was really important from my side of it.
“Coming back collectively, I was really impressed with some of them from the technical side of things. They had put on a bit of muscle over a short period of time and that is a lot of work that has gone on behind closed doors. Even behind my eyes because it was all individual at that time. That was very good, to trust fellows to go off and do it and they did it. I am very proud of them.
“We knew the Meath game was a very difficult one. They are a big team and we didn't know what was going to happen. It was our first game together because we had no challenge matches. There was a lot up in the air and I was very on edge to be honest. Things really went from there. We were transitioning in the development stage and we changed around the team a bit as well in terms of personnel. If some lads didn't go well one day, you had someone else going in straight away. That was important and it is a bit cut throat like that. At times, you have to have it like that.”
Offaly's first touch in particular has improved dramatically and a lot of the fumbling that blighted them last year and other years has disappeared. He agreed:
“I hope it doesn't come back but last year our first touch was poor, our discipline was poor. We worked on it and worked on it, nearly until we were blue in the face. Like, how are we making the same mistakes over and over. Poor decision making. Our off load is much better, our touch is much better. Collectively, we have had little time but Johnny Kelly (coach and selector) has done great work with the lads. We are all looking for that quality and intensity. Our work rate has improved massively. There has been an accumulation of factors that we have improved on. To be honest, it is all about them really.
“The lads have improved. We had a few interviews, a few chats at Christmas time with a couple of players, really honest conversations about where they were at and what they needed to improve on. I think that helped a lot of them as well. Maybe there were lads last year taking things for granted and thinking we would just pop back up. That didn't happen. In one sense, that realisation of where we were at was important, that realisation that this is not going to be easy. We really had to dig deep this year and the young lads in particular really came back in good shape. Their touch and that has improved.”
Forwards Liam Langton and Oisin Kelly in particular have transitioned into more complete, consistent performers.
“Liam at times would have played well last year and Oisin as well. The consistency wasn't there and it has been savage this year. Liam at centre forward in particular, he has really made it into his own. I am delighted for him because he puts in a lot of work. He is very selfless as well. Before Liam would have been shooting on sight. Last year, he would have transitoned to be fair, he would have off loaded to the man in the right position.
“Oisin went through a poor period of form last year. He had a bad hand injury which caused issues for him as well. He is really after coming out of his shell this year. They are performing at a high level. If we were playing Carlow or Kerry in the morning, we would probably have a 50/50 game and there could be a point in the difference or we could be on the wrong side of it. I am very clued in to that. We have had a good run and we are going well but we have more work to do. Those teams are still very competitive and even though the scoreline reflects differently, those games can go different ways at different times.”
While some players didn't exactly enhance their prospects against Wicklow, Fennelly will be giving them every opportunity to make their mark in the coming weeks.
“It is a game. Just because you didn't go overly well today, it doesn't matter. We are training next Wednesday, we have a challenge matches coming up, we will have internal matches ourselves so there is plenty of opportunity there. We are looking for consistency and work rate, and those principles. Everyone can have a bad day but it is those principles of work rate and all those areas that we need to have anyway, no matter how bad you are going on the day. There is a lot of competition there, the backs and forwards did very well today and without a doubt, the competition will be increasing.”
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