2000 – the dying kick of a great Offaly hurling team

The man behind the wire

2000 – the dying kick of a great Offaly hurling team

Simon Whelahan celebrating a famous win over Cork in 2000.

IT is hard to believe that it is twenty years since Offaly last competed in the All-Ireland Senior Hurling Championship final.

Back in 2000 as Offaly were preparing for the All-Ireland senior hurling final against Kilkenny, no one could have imagined the decline that was just around the corner and the fact that they would now be competing in hurling's third tier, the Christy Ring Cup.

Looking back on it now, the writing was on the wall in 2000 and the manner of their defeat by Kilkenny was proof that the great team of the 1990s were in terminal decline.

2000 represented the dying kick of that fantastic side, their All-Ireland semi-final win over then reigning All-Ireland champions, Cork their last true high point.

Offaly's decline after that was quick and very painful to watch but back in 2000, it looked like they could win a fifth All-Ireland senior hurling title, especially after that win over Cork.

Again with the benefit of hindsight, the whole deck of cards were falling down around Offaly's ankles in the days and weeks before that 2000 final. With many of the greats of that era in the Winter of their career, the decline was inevitable and unstoppable but events in 2000 and before represented a far from happy camp.

Yet that team managed to produce one of their great performances in the 2000 All-Ireland semi-final win over Cork, a magical day when they showed terrific character and ground out a famous 0-19 to 0-15 win.

Offaly had won arguably their most famous All-Ireland title in 1998, beating Clare in a legendary triology in the semi-final and staging a fantastic snatch and grab raid against Kilkenny in the final.

In 1999, Offaly had been heavily beaten by Kilkenny in the Leinster final, losing 5-14 to 1-16 but they almost reached the All-Ireland final, pipped by three points, 0-19 to 0-16, by eventual champions Cork in a semi-final of fantastic entertainment, drama and quality.

2000 looked to be a bridge too far for Offaly, despite a very good performance in their 3-15 to 1-8 win over Wexford in the Leinster semi-final. A big beating by Kilkenny, 2-21 to 1-13, in the Leinster final was demoralising on a day when Offaly were not truly competitive. And their All-Ireland quarter-final win over Derry, 2-23 to 2-17, raised far more questions than answers – it had been a day long struggle for Offaly, who didn't play well at all.

It meant that they entered the All-Ireland semi-final against Cork as major underdogs but once again, they conjured up the right answers. The Offaly team was changing and many of the greats from the previous decade were either slipping away or in decline. Martin Hanamy had played his last game in the 1999 All-Ireland semi-final defeat by Cork. One of the great corner backs of that era, captain of the 1994 All-Ireland champions, a leader of great substance and character, he had been instrumental in the 1994 and 1998 All-Ireland wins. However, Cork speed merchants Ben O'Connor and Seanie McGrath had given him a torrid time in 1999 and he knew that his time was up at the highest level.

Replacing him, however, was easier said than done and Birrr's Niall Claffey wore his number 4 shirt in 2000. Kevin Kinahan, Brian Whelahan, Joe Erritty, Kevin Martin, Johnny Dooley, Johnny Pilkington, Michael Duignan and Joe Dooley were still there from 1994 while them along with Simon Whelahan, Gary Hanniffy and John Ryan had played in the 1998 All-Ireland final win over Kilkenny. Niall Claffey, Ger Oakley and Brendan Murphy had joined the team as Offaly bid to transition.

The Cork game was a special one, a genuinely emotive occasion as Offaly staged a thrilling second half comeback. Offaly had been competitive in the first half but were still under pressure when they clicked into top gear in the second half. As victory loomed into sight, Offaly got better and better and fully deserved their 0-19 to 0-15 win.

There were heroic performances all over the field, none more so than by that great Seir Kieran warrior Kevin Kinahan. The towering full back had been in trouble in the first half on Joe Deane and wouldn't have had grounds for complaint if replaced. However, he had an inspirational second half, fielding great high ball and bursting out time and time again. It rose his team mates and the crowd and it was one of Kinahan's great performances.

Johnny Pilkington, now playing in the half forward line, picked four sesnational points off Sean Og o'hAlpin and Gary Hanniffy gave another Cork folk hero, Brian Corcoran a torrid time at centre half forward. Players such as Simon Whelahan and Ger Oakley also shone spectacularly and it was one of that era's great Offaly performances.

Sadly, it also proved to be their last one and they were ate alive by Kilkenny in the All-Ireland final, 5-15 to 1-14. The concession of a soft early goal destroyed Offaly's confidence, the game was over as a contest well before half time and it went from bad to worse as it wore on.

Off the field events did not help Offaly in 2000 and considering the controversy that bubbled under the surface, their performance and win over Cork was remarkable.

John Troy, one of the great stylists of that Offaly team and in that era, had withdrawn from the panel after the All-Ireland quarter-final win over Derry. He was furious at being taken off and made his feelings known when he played a club league game for Lusmagh against Kilcormac/Killoughey the following Tuesday night.

Twelve months earlier, Troy had scored one of the points of the century in the All-Ireland semi-final defeat by Cork, an audacious rob off Brian Corcoran and delightful floater over the bar. It was a point that showcased his breathtaking skill and stick work in all its glory.

Troy didn't feature in the Allireland semi-final but was fully back on board for the All-Ireland final and came on as a sub against Kilkenny. However, controversy over the panel omission of Hubert Rigney over shadowed much of the preparations for the final. The Banagher man was a brilliant centre half back, rock steady, unassuming and not shy about pulling the timber. He was ever consistent but injury meant that he didn't play in the 2000 championship.

Rigney tried desperately to make it back for the All-Ireland final but after management decided that he wasn't fit enough, controversy erupted and he reacted angrily. His ommission was a burning topic of conversation in the lead up to the final and Rigney later withdrew from his club St Rynagh's as well, arguing that they hadn't supported him enough over it.

It was an ugly, unfortunate affair with absolutely no winners and thankfully Rigney returned to both club and county in 2001 after successful peace talks. He went onto hurl for Offaly until 2002 when he retired following a qualifiers defeat by Tipperary and he has remained, a staunch, loyal St Rynagh's man since then, serving his club in a variety of roles on management and as worker.

The John Troy and Hubert Rigney controversies were symptoms of a team in decline rather than a reason for it. The decline was unavoidable as Offaly simply didn't have the same quality of hurler emerging to replace the greats retiring – they did win the Leinster minor hurling title in 2000, beating Dublin in the final but hopes that an outstanding new generation were emerging proved well wide of the mark.

A disillusioned Offaly manager, Pat Fleury stepped down after the 2000 All—Ireland final. A brilliant defender on the 19981 and 1985 All-Ireland champions, Fluery had taken over as manager in 1999. A no nonsense, strong character, Fleury was probably the right man in the wrong time and he took over a team in decline but with high expectations.

There had also been unhelpful off the field events in 1999, with some players agreeing to a sponsorship deal of sorts with a local mobile phone communications firm, First Link, without approval from the County Board and in opposition to the existing deal with Carroll Meats, who are still the county's sponsors. It resulted in the ludicrous situation of some players wearing First Link tops, others sporting Carroll Meats ones after the 1999 Leinster final defeat and that certainly did not help preparations that year.

It was also an early indication of impending conflict between players and the County Board – hostility that erupted with a “strike” by the senior football squad after Gerry Fahy resigned as manager in 2004.

It was an extraordinary time but that 2000 win over Cork was a never to be forgotten occasion, a day when that brilliant Offaly team did all their talking on the field.

Trivia corner

Last week's answers are:

1 – When Offaly beat Dublin 1-16 to 1-7 in the 1982 Leinster senior football final, who played centre half back?

Answer: Sean Lowry.

2 – Offaly's starting fifteen in the 1972 All-Ireland senior football final replay has a link with the Offaly team that beat Fermanagh in last Saturday's National Football League semi-final. Name them?

Answer: Uncle and nephew, Seamus and Niall Darby.

3 – Two men that started the 1980 Leinster senior hurling final had sons who played in the All-Ireland senior hurling qualifier against Cork in 2012. Name the sons?

Answer: Diarmuid Horan (father Padraig Horan) and Brian Carroll (father Pat Carroll).

This week's questions are:

1 – Five clubs had two players each on the Offaly senior football team against Wexford in the 2011 senior championship. Four of the clubs were Clara, Tubber, Edenderry and Gracefield. Name the fifth?

2 – On how many occasions did Offaly beat the reigning All-Ireland senior hurling champions in the championship?

3 – How many games did Offaly U-21 footballers play to win the All-Ireland title in 1988?

Answers in the next column. With thanks to former referee Carthage Buckley for supplying the questions.

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