Offaly supporters celebrating in Croke Park.
IT is important not to overstate things, not to get caught up in the emotion and euphoria of the moment, to lose balance and reality but Sunday's All-Ireland U-20 Football Championship win has the potential to change everything for Offaly GAA.
It was a success that no one could have forseen at the start of the year. While the Offaly team management and panel would have been targeting a Leinster title, their focus was really on one game at a time. Beat Wexford first, then Westmeath and try and be competitive against Dublin in the Leinster final.
The Leinster final win over Dublin changed everything for them. They kept the Dubs to just six scores, 3-3 but it was the quality of their football that captured the imagination, set the pulse racing. The pace and flair of the Offaly team, their ability to perform under pressure, to do the right thing, their work ethic and their honesty just took the breath away.
It was football played with freedom. Yes there was a system, they tried to retain possession and Offaly did employ Oisin Keenan-Martin in a sweeper role from that Dublin game on – a role that the Tullamore man absolutely excelled in. However, they played football as it should be played and players were allowed to express themselves. When they attacked, they did so at speed and with venom. They weren't afraid to give a long foot pass, a 50/50 ball into enemy territory and take pot shots at the goals from a variety of distances and angles.
Modern football can dull the senses at times. It is too safe, too defensive, too systematic. This Offaly team broke free from all that and as a result, they won admirers throughout the country and brought incredible joy to their own county. Going senior will present different challenges for many of this young team – tactics and holding possession will play an increasing part in their lives and some managers won't embrace flair and individuality but that is a story for a different day and time will tell on all that.
The excitement in Offaly for the past two weeks plus was almost unquantifiable. Flags went up in every town, village and country road in the county. Football was the main topic of conservation, the search for tickets was not far off All-Ireland senior final proportions. It wasn't there but a far bigger than expected crowd of over 20,000 attended the final and Offaly probably had over half of them.
That was a huge crowd for Offaly and it showed how desperate the county was for success. Like a lot of people, I honestly thought I would never see an Offaly team win an All-Ireland title again and very few saw this coming.
This squad hadn't won a provincial title or done anything special at minor level and there was little to suggest that they would make the big breakthrough. Yet they did that, improving with every game, showing fantastic bravery and guts and above all, an ability to perform and hold their nerve in the white heat of battle, when the pressure was at its most intense.
How did it happen? Firstly, it is down to the players. They are part of a new generation that want to be county players and are willing to do what it takes. They trained hard, they got themselves very well conditioned and their attitude was exemplary. The pace in this Offaly team was a joy to behold – they had it in all sectors and they were willing to use it to ruthless effect. Cormac Egan's running ability and pace has brought him to national prominence but there were plenty of others to set the senses tingling. And in positions where you don't always get such fast players – corner backs Aaron Brazil and Lee Pearson created so many openings when bursting up field. Players such as Rory Egan, Cathlan Flynn, Oisin Keenan-Martin and Cathal Donoghue also showed tremendous pace and movement. The skillset of this Offaly team was remarkably high and while some have improvements to make, it is fierce exciting to think about what many of them can achieve and how good they can become.
The emergence of this team is a process that has begun a number of years ago and the dividends are now being yielded. There were many important steps along the way. The development of Faithful Fields in Kilcormac was possibly the single biggest factor. It gave an established training base with top class, state of the art facilities. The whole culture began to change there. U-14, 16 development squads were training beside senior teams, footballers with hurlers. Ideas exchanged, friendships made and all the time, the bar was being raised across the board.
For years, the fitness and conditioning of Offaly county footballers and hurlers was short of many of their competitors and it was no surprise that they came up short so often. That has changed now and the message has gone out to a whole new generation about what is required. But unlike before, it is a message that they can hear with their own ears, see with their own eyes. It is a message being championied by their brothers, their neighbours, their friends, their club men – they have seen what it can bring, the joy it gives people, what it means by a county and they will be inspired by it, they will want the same.
It is that way across the board. While this is a football success and is of most benefit to that code, a rising tide does raise all ships. There is a spin off for hurling in this. A lot of the same work is also going on in the small ball game. They may be a bit further behind on the road but they are moving forward in the right direction and every young hurler in Offaly will want to experience what this group of footballers have witnessed in the past few days.
Sunday was just a magical day. I am part of a generation that can remember the 1980s and the success then, and was a young adult in the 1990s, fully able to savour anything that happened then. Our parents' generation saw the whole lot from 1960 onwards and they are a truly privileged breed. There was a whole generation that came after the 1990s, who were either too young then or not born, and experienced nothing only disappointment and disillusioned.
It was a slippery slope and it looked like it had no bottom. It wasn't fashionable to be an Offaly player and supporters could take or leave games. That has all changed now and suddenly it is fashionable to be an Offaly footballer again. And make no mistake about this, it is also fashionable to be an Offaly hurler now. They are trying so hard as well and success of some sort may not be that far off. A lot of current Offaly senior footballers and hurlers proudly wore their jersey in Croke |Park on Sunday and that was a very good thing.
The appointment of county team managements has played a pivotal role in what is happening in football. Declan Kelly has been a remarkably successful manager and has had the midas touch, winning championships every where he went – St Brigid's, St Vincent's, Cappincur, St Loman's and now Offaly. He is a strong character with an infectious passion for football. He is not afraid to call players and others out, to dispense with ones that he feels aren't doing what is required and he has been a key factor in the raising of the bar.
His selectors, Ger Rafferty, David Connolly and Ciaran Grennan combined to make a really good managerial package. They sang off the one hymn sheet, they worked well together and above everything else, they enjoyed themselves in the process,along with their backroom team. Everyone played a role and they sent out a message to the players that it took hard work but they also needed to have fun while doing it. This fun and enjoyment has been obvious in the way they have played their football and it is this that has captured public imagination.
John Maughan is likely to get another year as Offaly senior football manager and that is good but Declan Kelly will be his heir apparent when he goes. Whether Kelly wants it or not is another story but his elevation is now a natural progression and the timing of this will be key – the necessary changing of the the guard on the Offaly senior team and the introdoction of the new talent needs to be handled well and at the right time.
Ken Furlong is operating out of a similar mantra as Offaly minor football manager. He is a very different personality than Kelly but the message is similar and the effect on players is immense. Offaly were very close to winning the 2020 Leinster minor football title this year and their displays adds to the feeling of well-being. Ironically, Offaly may not have won the U-20 had the minors progressed further – their elimation paved the way for minors to be called into the U-20 panel with John Furlong, Cormac Egan, Tom Hyland, Keith O'Neill and Cathal Ryan all on the squad on Sunday. Furlong and Egan have been absolutely pivotal to the success, brilliant in every way, Tom Hyland accepted and embraced the challenge of the full back role after Kieran Dolan got injured and O'Neill made a valuable contribution off the bench. Offaly could not have won the U-20 All-Ireland without these minors and could very possibly have lost to Wexford or Westmeath had they not been there.
The County Board have played a huge role. Previous board regimes played their part as the development of Faithful Fields, the appointment of team managers, the progress of players and the initial raising of the bar all happened or began under their watch. However, the belief that Sunday's win would not have happened without the installation of the new Michael Duignan regime is unavoidable. We are in the realms of speculation here but it is hard to get away from the impression that something might have happened with the previous board that could have scuppered the thing during the year.
We don't know if Sunday would have happened or not but what we can say with conviction is that Duignan and company are the right men in the right place at the right time. They are an important part of the process of raising standards, instilling passion, driving everyone on, bringing the county with them and putting the structures in place that allows players to be the best that they can be. Criticism of the County Board has been an ever present factor in Offaly GAA life for many years but it is almost completely absent at the moment, apart from in Tullamore (and that is down to the row over the O'Connor Park lease) and with a few people in other areas.
Shane Lowry coming on board as a major backer is another important piece of the jigsaw. It sends out a powerful message to all and it is very doubtful if this would have happened before now. Lowry, Michael Duignan, the County Board, the team managements, the players is all part of a very intoxicating mix.
The happiness of the older generation, former players, supporters who thought these days were gone was truly special but this win was especially for the young people. They have never experienced anything like this before – it was impossible not to feel excited on the motorway on the way up to Dublin on Sunday, Offaly cars with flags waving, horns blowing. The sight of familiar people who were my age in the 1990s but were now bringing their teenagers or young children to their first big match in Croke Park. It was so magical and they are the future. They are really what it is all about.
The scenes in Tullamore and other towns on Sunday evening and night will never be forgotten. The ovation given to the team when their bus arrived back, jubiliant supporters making their way home from Dublin. The Offaly GAA County Board did not organise a homecoming because of Covid-19 and that was the right decision but there was still a huge gathering in O'Connor Square and the town centre on Sunday night.
The party went onto the early hours and the fast majority behaved themselves impeccably. There was a minority of people who were just too drunk, who were a danger to themselves and others and who engaged in anti-social behaviour – breaking glasses on the road, damaging trees in the square. That was always likely to happen where a large volume of excess alcohol was consumed and it was a pity but overall it was an occasion of pure, unadulterated joy. Incidentally, well done to Offaly County Council who had Tullamore absolutely spotless by 9.00am on Monday morning. The town centre was in a dreadful mess on Sunday night but a group of approximately ten got going at 7.00am in the morning and people going into work at 9 wouldn't have known there was anything amiss a few hours earlier.
And in the middle of all this, the players showed maturity far beyond their years. They conducted themselves with great dignity and respect. They are young people who would like to let their hair down like their peers at times but they are now role models and they embraced and accepted this onerous responsibility. As the celebrations continued on Monday, their behaviour was impeccable. They enjoyed themselves but they exuded calm, confidence and dignity. They showed great respect for themselves, their families, their county and what they were representing – it was also refreshing to see so many of them wear the Offaly jerseys that they wore on Sunday.
It was also great to witness the respect that they showed to former Offaly stars during the celebrations. Several of them got pictures taken with two of Offaly's greatest and most cherished figures, Matt Connor and Martin Furlong, and they wanted to chat them, to hear what they thought. It is all of this that makes Offaly unique and makes the future so optimistic.
Another notable feature was the county wide support Offaly had on Sunday. Flags went up in traditional hurling strongholds in the south, people travelled to Croke Park from every part of the county and several hurling legends were among the excited crowd.
It all helps to make the future very bright for Offaly GAA as a whole.
Last week's answers are:
1 – Who was the first Offaly man to win a Railway Cup hurling medal?
Answer – Paddy Molloy, 1965.
2 – Name two members of the same family who captained Offaly to Leinster football titles, sixteen years apart?
Answer – Martin Furlong (Leinster SFC, 1982) and Ken Furlong (Leinster JFC, 1998).
3 – In 1981 when St Rynagh's won their 11th senior hurling title, name the two men that won their eleventh medal?
Answer: Damian Martin and Joe Dooley.
This week's questions are:
1 – History was made in the Offaly Senior Football Championship in 1989 when Ferbane beat Rhode in the final. How?
2 – Who was the first man to receive the Dowling Cup twice.
3 – Name the father and son who played for Offaly in All-Ireland football finals?
Answers in the next column. With thanks to former referee Carthage Buckley for supplying the questions.
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