Realistic Fennelly under no illusions about the challenges ahead of Offaly hurling

"Lads we are not back at the top table, we are not. That concept or perception needs to change"

Realistic Fennelly under no illusions about the challenges ahead of Offaly hurling

Michael Fennelly with Offaly GAA chairman Michael Duignan

OFFALY senior hurling manager, Michael Fennelly was certainly keeping his feet on the ground after a run away 0-41 to 2-14 win over Derry in the Christy Ring Cup final at Croke Park.

Delighted with promotion back to the Joe McDonagh Cup and Offaly's performances this year, the Kilkenny man spoke about the challenges that lie ahead and the improvements that need to take place for them to return as a top tier hurling county.

“Job done, I am delighted for the boys more than anything. Eight out of eight between the league and the championship and we looked on the league as a championship so they have gone from strength to strength. We had forty odd points today. It wasn't our most perfect performance but forty points is brilliant any day.”

What was the big difference between this year and last year?

“I think ownership from the players was a large part and accountability. I think a lot of them went at it in December and took it upon themselves to go at it in terms of strength and conditioning and working on their touch. A few bits and pieces like that. They came in in decent enough shape in April. We did a bit of work online and they had their individual programmes but you can only monitor what you can,

“We weren't hands on, hands on. I have no doubt other counties were coming together in groups but we didn't do it and lads took on that accountability. We had less than three weeks to prepare for our first game against Meath which was tight. I was talking to one or two reporters that day and I was as nervous as anything because we didn't know what to expect. We had no challenge matches or anything. The boys did well that day and we kicked on. A lot of them have really improved from last year. I don't know if we can take credit for that. It is themselves more than anything. Liam Langton, Oisin (Kelly), a lot of lads didn't play overly well in the winter last year. They came back this year and they had to redeem themselves a bit. I think they have done that. Ben Conneely, the whole lot did it. A good group of players.”

He was asked about the importance of getting out of the Christy Ring Cup and up to a higher standard of hurling.

“Obviously it was important to win the Christy Ring Cup. It wasn't a case of getting out of it, it is a competition that is there and we were in it. We respected each and every team. We did our analysis well. Derry had massively improved over the last four or five weeks. They played very well against Wicklow and Sligo. They had a very poor league campaign. The information I was getting was that Derry weren't as good but the last few games I saw they were much better and we did our analysis during the week. We spent time on it. We made sure our lads were right and there were going to be no surprises today. There is never a secret to it. There are a number of components and everything worked collectively well together but you can have all that right on any given day and things don't work out but thankfully they did this year.”

Offaly will compete against the Limerick's, Waterford's etc in the National Hurling League next year and Fennelly once again expressed concern about the size of that step up.

“It is a huge step up from the calibre of Christy Ring teams and Division 1 is two or three steps up, lets be realistic about it. I still think the Sky pundits maybe have a better idea in terms of how those groups should be in terms of putting in more teams in there. As I said it before, any team that wins that Dicision 2A and now they are playing All-Ireland contenders, that is just a huge step up and it doesn't really do much for that team going up, whether it is Kerry or Carlow or an Offaly. I don't think it helps to be honest. I get the concept of having two decent groups in Division 1A and B in terms of a team coming up and looking to stay up there, it is very very difficult.

“We saw Westmeath coming back down this year. Westmeath have had a great year, they won the Joe McDonagh but in terms of their league, they were beaten by twenty points. Does that help a whole lot? Some people says it does but team morale is very difficult. It is very hard going out and getting beaten like that every game. It depends what the mindset is and what the goal is. The Joe McDonagh was obviously the goal for them but those hammerings are just not good. If Westmeath were in that same group again, it would be the same result to be fair. I don't think it is overly right yet, they need to work on that. The promotion of the teams, they need to keep them up there longer. We definitely need more competitive games but you don't go from step one to step four. It needs to be step two, step three, step four.”

Would an old style Division 1B with a mix of top tier and Joe McDonagh Cup counties help?

“It would help for the teams going up but I know from the context of sport and good games, people want good games. There is always one team dominant in that group. There is a Limerick in there or a Galway in there, years back and the games weren't as competitive as they like but 1A was massively competitive. Sky pundits were on about more teams in each of them. I think that could be better. The likes of Joe McDonagh Cup teams who would get up there would be playing each other and they would be playing other good teams as well. It is a mix and match. You are not playing a Limerick, a Galway, a Kilkenny, semi-finalists of the Liam McCarthy through all their games.”

He also criticised the promotion of games in the second, third and four tiers.

“The promotion of all the games is important. The Joe McDonagh, Christy Ring and Lory Meagher are sort of forgotten about and suppressed. The promotion of them is very poor. That falls with the GAA and the broadcasting companies. Something has to be done about it. I am not surprised there is football players concerned about this tier 2 competition. I think it is the right thing to do, personally speaking and that is from an outside point of view but they are afraid it will be forgotten about and suppressed. When are Westmeath analysed in terms of their last win? The Christy Ring might get ten seconds. That is no good to young kids in terms of to be inspired to play for Offaly. They want to be seen on the Sunday Game, they want to see their players that are role models on RTE, on the Sky's, on TG4. A lot needs to be done for the promotion of the games and that is the ethos of the GAA. For me, it is just not working, it is not fit for purpose the way it is.”

Is the ambition for Offaly to get back into the Liam McCarthy Cup.

“I am not looking that far. My contract is for two years. I need to sit down with the chairman and go through things and more importantly with my wife. I have two boys at home, I have a sixteen week old and a two and a half year on and it is a bit mental at home. It has been full on the last three months. The week we came back training was the week we had Billy so things have been fairly full on. Obviously we have gotten through it. I have a good support and backroom team, they are all very competent and well able to do their jobs. We are in the Joe McDonagh next year. That is Offaly's next job and we won't be looking anywhere past that.

“The future vision would be getting back to the Liam McCarthy. How far is that away? I am not sure. We see the Waterford's, Limerick's at the moment. They are bringing things to another level. Things are not going anyway backwards, they are not maintaining that top level which is great but these Offaly boys are good, they are honest, they are eager to improve, eager to develop. We need to bring on younger players that bit quicker in Offaly to get them up to speed.

“There is a plan there from Michael Duignan and his team to develop club hurling in Offaly. That is key. Schools is key. That will take time. That is not a two or three year project. That is a five, six, seven year project realistically but the vision is there and the structures will hopefully be there in the next two or three years.”

Did you question your managerial methods after the Christy Ring Cup defeat by Down last year.

“To be straight, I straight away went in after the Down game that we lost and I said we are doing things right. I knew in my heart and soul. Follow your gut is a key thing to listen to as a manager and my gut was telling me we were doing the right things. And we were doing the right things. Results didn't go our way against Down that day. We lost on penalties. In the league we drew against Antrim. Antrim got two goals in the last two or three minutes and a draw wasn't enough to get into the final.

“The year could have been so different for us but in one sense, it could have been a good thing. Some players moved on, the management and back room team became more hungry to improve, the players became more hungry. We have really gelled more as a group this year. Maybe it was a good thing. A lot of people thought we would walk it last year. I didn't think so but maybe that complacency can creep in and it is hard to get out. Maybe it was a good thing in one sense that last year didn't go particularly well and we really put our foot to the ground this year and left no stone unturned.”

He was asked if Offaly reaching the All-Ireland U-20 football final is any help to what they are trying to do with the hurlers?

“I think it is brilliant for Offaly. I am delighted to see the U-20s in the All-Ireland. I watched the Leinster final against Dublin and it was savage. Any kind of win like that and bringing home silverware is unbelievable. I am absolutely over the moon for the U-20s. I met them there recently, we crossed over in a training session and I am just over the moon for them. The euphoria they had, they were underdogs going in. It is brilliant, the more of that we have in Offaly the better. Is it going to help me a lot? No it's not. Let's be honest about it. The next manager of Offaly, me or whoever, needs to get their feet on the ground. There is a huge body of work to be done.

“People are saying Offaly is back at the top table. Lads we are not back at the top table, we are not. That concept or perception needs to change. We are going in the right direction but there is so much work that needs to be done. And the players themselves will tell you that. They are mad for it and they are eager for it but there is a big step to be taken and as I said, the Waterford's and Limerick's are bringing it to another level.

“Where are we at the moment. We are definitely down the line a bit but we are going in the right direction. Our average age is 24. There is a few lads around the 30 mark and there is a few more young lads there we would like to get in and blood them. They need to be blooded. The minors and U-20s had a good performance but it needs to be improved. The Dublin they played against (in U-20) were quite good. They played to a game plan and ball to hand they were excellent. I think Dublin were definitely ahead from that side of it. I think feet on the ground is definitely important for Offaly people. The clubs and the schools, that is where it is at. Inter-county managers can come in for two-three years, minor managers, U-20s but you don't have much time. It needs to come from the ground up, the coaches in Offaly.”

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