Cian Farrell came of age for Offaly in 2021
IT was a year of solid and steady progress for Offaly senior footballers with promotion to Division 2 of the National Football League the undoubted highlight.
There is still plenty of work, vast improvements that have to take place if Offaly are to transition fully from the lower rungs into the middle tier but they took very definite steps forward in the right direction this year.
They basically achieved their pre-season objectives – to win promotion, beat Louth in the championship and be competitive against Kildare.
Promotion to Division 2 was a huge thing for Offaly. In recent years, they had been generally closer to relegation to Division 4 than promotion to Division 2. The league format this year suited Offaly. Covid-19 restrictions meant that the league was split into two groups and Offaly were paired with Wicklow, Limerick and Tipperary.
Derry, Fermanagh, Cavan and Longford were in the northern division. That looked to be a tougher group on paper but whether it was or not is immaterial. Offaly beat Fermanagh in the semi-final while Cavan were relegated along with Tipperary. The strengths of the respective groups is a matter of opinion but there is no disputing the fact that Offaly would have found it easier to qualify out of a four team group than a traditional eight team one.
They did have to play well to come out of it. They won their three games against Wicklow, Limerick and Tipperary while they played their best football of the year when beating Fermanagh to book promotion. The big positive out of the Limerick, Tipperary and Fermanagh games in particular was that serious questions were asked of Offaly in each of these. Limerick, Tipp and Fermanagh all came back at Offaly late on but they were able to hold on and win. They were the type of games that Offaly football teams had tended to lose in the past and winning tight games where they had to show character and guts was a very welcome development.
Having beaten Fermanagh, Offaly opted to play a Division 3 final against Derry on condition that it be in Croke Park. Manager John Maughan spoke in favour of the fixture, arguing that an outing in Croke Park would really benefit the players. Unfortunately, it proved to be Offaly's worse game of the year as Derry destroyed them – though Derry's achievement in running Donegal so close in the Ulster championship on Sunday proved how good of a side they were.
Offaly played Louth a week later in the championship and again they had to dig deep and show character to advance, winning by 3-19 to 0-19 in extra time.
A week later, Offaly bowed out of the championship when they lost, 1-15 to 0-13, to Kildare. They competed well, particularly in the first half – Offaly trailed by 0-6 to 0-5 at half time but really should have been ahead. They tried hard in the second half but Offaly missed a couple of goal chances over the 70 minutes and didn't ask the really serious questions of the winners that they could have.
Kildare looked like winning from a long way out and while Offaly were not far away, it all ended in a bit of an anti-climax. Playing the league final against Derry may not have been the best thing in hindsight as Offaly ended up playing a lot of consecutive weekends and this may have had an adverse impact against Kildare.
Still Offaly will reflect with satisfaction on their year's work. They will learn a lot from Division 2 football next season and the objective will be to retain their status. With midlands neighbours, Laois and Westmeath dropping back to Division 3, that will be no easy task. Offaly and Derry are promoted, Galway and Roscommon have come down from Division 1 and the group will be completed by Meath, Down, Clare and Cork. Staying up in that group will be no simple task.
Offaly will be hoping that John Maughan will give it another year. It remains to be seen if the Mayo man will commit to another season of driving up and down to Kilcormac and Tullamore from his Castlebar home but Offaly will certainly want him back on board. The choice to stay or walk away will be his.
Maughan has given three years and it will be understandable if he opts out but Offaly could do with him at at the helm for one more year as they face into a very tough league campaign. He has had a steady hand at the wheel and Offaly's football as well as their physical and mental conditioning has improved under his watch.
There is still a long road ahead. Offaly showed in the second half against Fermanagh and the whole league final against Derry that they can still play some fairly mediocre stuff. They need to continue to blood young players and they also need to get attacking protege Cian Johnson back to fitness. Johnson has almost been a forgotten man as he deals with a groin injury but he is a serious score taker and his presence would certainly enhance the team.
They will also be trying to get Niall McNamee to commit for another year. His class and leadership shone this year and McNamee is a tremendous presence in the camp.
The following is a brief review of how the Offaly players fared this year – it is based on the panel that was selected for the Kildare game.
Paddy Dunican – Paddy Dunican has made the number one jersey his own. He has been a safe and steady pair of hands in the goals, secure under the high ball and a good shot stopper. He likes to come up the field with the ball though you really can't afford to be dispossessed when doing this, as he was against Kildare. His kickouts were good when there was a short-mid distance option available but were not great when he had to go long. He has also converted some long range frees and “45s” , though he probably shouldn't be asked to take frees within thirty metres of goal – not because he is bad at these, though he can be hit or miss, but a forward should always be capable of kicking those ones. Rating – 8.
James Lalor – James Lalor came back into the panel this year after being off it for a few years. It took time for him to settle in and he struggled in some of the league games but was brilliant in the championship win over Louth at corner back. He will get better with more training and games. Rating – 7.
Eoin Rigney – Eoin Rigney was ultra consistent in the Offaly defence. He never really put a foot wrong and while some opponents caused him problems, he was one of Offaly's best players this year. Rating – 8.
Niall Darby – This was arguably Niall Darby's best year in the Offaly jersey. He had an excellent year at corner back and revelled in being captain. He was very good on the ball and got upfield regularly. He handled his defensive duties confidently and while he doesn't have the size to prosper when football is at its most physical, he played as well as he can and did very little wrong. Rating – 9.
Colm Doyle – Colm Doyle has many of the atttibutes you would want in a county player. He is committed, he is hungry and he clearly wants to do well. He tried so hard at wing back but he is very much a work in progress and has raw parts to his game. He will get better and he likes to get forward. Rating – 6.
Johnny Moloney – Johnny Moloney had a broken season as injury ruled him out of the big league games against Tipperary and Fermanagh. He returned to centre half back for the championship and did reasonably well. The Tullamore man remains one of Offaly's best players and there could be a case for playing him at midfield, especially as Carl Stewart now provides a centre half back option. Rating – 7.
David Dempsey – Offaly played Dempsey at centre half forward in a couple of the league games. He did particularly well in the win over Wicklow here but he was soon back in defence. He is an excellent defender and it is here where he will serve Offaly best, even if he has the football to be used elsewhere. The Ballycommon man is now a very well established defender and he looks ready to transition into one of the team's main leaders. Rating – 8.
Cathal Mangan – Cathal Mangan was on and off the team, generally either coming on as a sub or taken off after starting. Mangan has a lot going for him but is also a work in progress at this level. He is coming from junior football with Kilclonfert and it takes time to establish as a county senior. He tried very hard and had some very good patches. Rating – 6.
Jordan Hayes – Jordan Hayes played wing back in the league and went out to midfield for the championship games as it dawned on management that they were in trouble here. Offaly needs a traditional ball winning midfielder but there isn't too many of them at the right standard in the county. Hayes is a very good player with a very cultured left foot. Midfield is not his natural terrain and selecting him here was very much a case of trying to plug holes. The Edenderry man had a good year and created a lot when driving forward. Rating – 8.
Peter Cunningham – 2021 was a very mixed bag for Peter Cunningham as he played both midfield and in the attack. Cunningham is one of Offaly's most important footballers but he only produced flashes of his best. He had a couple of very good league games but didn't find his A game in the championship, despite moments of real class. Rating – 6.
Carl Stewart – It was good to see Carl Stewart commit to a full season and he looks to be an inter-county footballer and comfortable at this level. He played both centre half back and centre half forward. Defence is his most natural position and it could be wing back where he makes it. The Clara man is very good on the ball and he will learn a lot from this year. He came onto the panel late last year and made his debut as a sub in the championship defeat by Kildare. He played in all the competitive games this year, coming on as a sub against Wicklow and Limerick games and starting the rest. Stewart is a lovely foot passer of the ball and he will improve further – he occasionally carried the ball into opponents and lost it. He is adapting to this level and another year of hard training should bring him on further. Verdict – 7.
Anton Sullivan – Anton Sullivan was another who didn't find true consistency. The Rhode man is one of Offaly's most important players and has great energy and work rate. He had some excellent games but confidence became an issue for him as the year wore on – he was taken off in the first half against Louth after giving away a few balls, though he came on again for extra time. Despite that, he will be crucial to Offaly next year. Rating – 7.
Niall McNamee – Niall McNamee was absolutely crucial for Offaly this year as he turned the clock back with a series of super displays. He was a high impact sub in the league, helping drive Offaly across the line in most games. He started in the two championship games and even though he got sparse ball against Kildare, he took such close watching. One of Offal's big success stories. Rating – 9.
Cian Farrell – Cian Farrell really came of age with a series of sensational performances. He has emerged into a top quality inter-county footballer. Accurate from play and frees with his trusty left boot, he injects something different into Offaly. Already a key figure. Rating – 9.
Ruari McNamee – Ruari McNamee did well for the most part in 2021. It was arguably his best year for Offaly and the quality of his play can take the breath away at times. He can float in and out of games but he oozes quality. Rating – 8.
Ian Duffy – With Paddy Dunican so well established in goals, Ian Duffy didn't get a chance.
Eoin Carroll – Eoin Carroll will look back on the year with disappointment but he had some very good games, especially during the promotion charge. He was midfield throughout the league but was left off for the championship as Offaly tried to shake up the centre. That was a strange decision as it is doubtful if Offaly have fifteen better footballers than Carroll and he is surely worth his place somewhere. Fitness could be an issue for him. The Cappincur man has had plenty of knee problems and his running looked very stiff at times but a fully fit Carroll has a huge amount to offer Offaly. Rating – 6.
Bernard Allen – Bernard Allen made way for Niall McNamee on the championship team but started all the league games. He made an important contribution to promotion, and got some impoprtant scores. Rating – 7.
Shane Horan – Shane Horan was on and off the team. As always he worked very hard at wing forward, putting in a lot of unseen yards and linking well between midfield and the full forwards. He had a couple of very good games and there were also a couple where he struggled to get on the ball. Rating – 6.
Jack Quinn – Came in as an extra time sub against Louth and that was a very difficult place to make your debut. He has plenty of potential and it would be unfair to rate him on the basis of the few minutes he got that day.
Cian Donohue – Cian Donohue came on as a sub in most of the games, though he didn't get in against Kildare. He is an honest and hard working player who will always give his best. Rating – 6.
Mark Abbott – Mark Abbott got limited game time but he showed his importance to Offaly. Having got the point that kept Offaly in Division 3 against Sligo a couple of years ago, he got a crucial goal in the league semi-final against Fermanagh and also kicked a point against Louth. It looks like he will be mainly used as a sub for Offaly and his size can go against him at this level but he is a very good player and can get big scores. Rating – 7.
Ciaran Donnelly – Came on as a sub against Limerick and Tipperary but didn't play enough to rate.
Joe Maher – Joe Maher returned to the panel after a long absence and showed moments of great promise. He started against Wicklow and Limerick and came on as a sub in the others, though he wasn't used against Kildare which was questionable. Maher can score with his educated left foot and he could feature more next year. Rating – 6.
Bill Carroll – A younger brother of Eoin, Bill Carroll is another emerging player who looks very much at home at this level. He still has plenty to do but is a utility player who can play anywhere in the attack. He had some very good spells. Rating – 6.
Aaron Leavy (Tullamore): Aaron Leavy came on as a sub in four games this year and didn't establish himself. However, with Offaly trying to develop midfielders, he is worth putting intensive work into over the Winter and has the capacity to improve. Rating – 6.
Last week's answers are:
1 – When Offaly played Tipperary in the quarter-final of the 2003 All-Ireland Senior Hurling Championship, who were the opposing managers?
Answer – Mike McNamara (Offaly) and Michael Doyle (Tipperary).
2 – Name the four players who played for Offaly in both All-Ireland minor finals in 1989?
Answer: Finbarr Cullen, Sean Grennan, Kevin Flynn and Niall Hand.
3 – From 1997 to 2002 inclusive, how many Tipperary men managed Offaly senior hurlers and name them?
Answer: Three – John McIntyrne, Babs Keating and Fr Tom Fogarty.
This week's questions are:
1 – Who captained Offaly to win the 1971 Leinster U-21 football title?
2 – How many Offaly men that won All-Ireland senior football medals on the field of play were on the Offaly junior football team that won the Leinster title in 1972?
3 – Name the first Offaly man to win eleven senior championship medals?
Answers in the next column. With thanks to former referee Carthage Buckley for supplying the questions.
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