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25/10/2021

OPINION: New golden generation for Tullamore but past has club on high alert

THE MAN BEHIND THE WIRE

OPINION: New golden generation for Tullamore but past has club on high alert

Tullamore 2020 U-20 FC champions

IT is a very exciting time for Tullamore GAA Club as a new golden generation of outstanding young footballers had emerged onto the scene.

The quality of their football as they destroyed Durrow in the 2020 U-20 Football Championship final last Tuesday week in Tubber was just breathtaking and it augurs very well for their future.

The pace they displayed, their skill levels, their work rate, their intensity and their awareness was just fantastic to watch. It is always difficult to compare teams and players from different eras. The games, training and coaching methods have changed so much but this is as good an underage team as has been seen in Offaly.

In over almost 35 years of reporting on Offaly GAA affairs, this is the best U-20/21 club side I have seen in the county and it is probably, the best, most complete underage side. At U-21 level, the only truly comparable side was the Rhode parish outfit side of St Michael's. They won six U-21 football titles in a row from 2002 to 2007 and embarked on another three in a row from 2011 to 2013.

Many of Offaly's top footballers in the modern era featured on those sides. The Daingean parish outfit of St Vincent's and Ferbane also had fantastic U-21 sides. They both won three in a row in the past decade and possessed some outstanding footballers. They were real forces of nature and command the utmost of respect.

The St Michael's team of the 2000s was truly special. They had a great collective work ethic and individual brilliance got them across the line in several games. Niall McNamee, Brian Darby, Niall Darby and Shane Sullivan all won five U-21 football medals in those years and they helped back bone a golden era for Rhode at senior level along with others.

Rhode reaped a huge dividend out of those underage teams. All the outstanding performers went on to have long productive, senior careers and this shows the challenges that now face Tullamore. Compared to other clubs, the fall off in players from underage into adult ranks in Tullamore is massive. We have all seen outstanding U-14s, U-16s and minors in Tullamore who simply don't play into adult ranks.

They disappear off the GAA face of the earth as they focus on other sports, lose interest, head off to college and move out of the town to other locations in Ireland and abroad. That doesn't happen with many of their competitors. There may be a bit of a fall off in Edenderry and Clara but it is much less severe and in Rhode, almost every outstanding underage footballer will play senior – unless injury dictates otherwise.

I have seen young Tullamore footballers set the pulse racing in U-12, 14, 16 and minor finals since the end of the 1980s and then scarcely played adult football. In the early 2000s, Eoin Marsden looked to have all the attributes to play football at a high level, possibly county, but golf was his game and he is just one example in a litany of “ones that got away”!

History will have Tullamore on high alert at the moment. Back in 1977, there was a similar wave of excitement as Tullamore won a famous treble of Senior, U-21 and Minor Football Championships.

Four players won all three medals, Liam Whitney, Mickey White, Barney Cronly and Ollie Bracken. They were the golden generation and Tullamore looked set for an era of unprecedented riches.

Instead, they embarked on a shocking 23 year famine and didn't win their next Senior Football Championship title until 2000. They didn't win an U-21 until 1989 and while they won minors in 1982, 1986 and 1999, too many of these players didn't come through.

They didn't return to the senior football final until 1988, where they lost out to a great Ferbane side who were in the midst of a five in a row run. Out of the four that won the three medals in 1977, only the late Liam Whitney was still playing in 1988, lining out at full back in a final where Tullamore made a powerful start before being overcome. The quartet wouldn't have been 30 in 1988 but most of them and so many others were lost to the GAA in that era.

Mickey White and Ollie Bracken were two of Offaly's most promising emerging footballers in that era. Many people from that time reckon that White could have been on the Offaly 1982 All-Ireland winning panel if not team, such was his early brilliance, but he played mainly soccer after that while emigration took Bracken to New York by the end of the 1970s.

They were cruel losses to the Tullamore team and it is a history that has the club on high alert at the moment.

It is imposssible not to get excited about the Tullamore team that won last week's U-20 final. The fact that they were missing two of their marquee players through injury, Offaly All-Ireland U-20 winning heroes, John Furlong and Oisin Keenan-Martin shows just how good they are.

It is frightening and Tullamore look to be nigh unbeatable for the 2021 U-20 championship. From the starting fifteen that played against Durrow, only Shane Enright, Ciaran Burns and Diarmuid Egan are overage this year and John Furlong and Oisin Keenan-Martin are two of the players ready to step into their shoes.

Oisin Keenan-Martin, John Furlong and Cormac Egan were outstanding as Offaly won the All-Ireland U-20 football title this year. Ciaran Egan was a very effective sub, who never let anyone down when used and he is what Tullamore needs – a ball winning, hard working midfielder with a strong engine. Harry Plunkett would have been used in the All-Ireland semi-final and final only for losing his place on the panel after going on holidays ahead of the Leinster final win over Dublin while Luke Egan opted for hurling when manager Declan Kelly made it clear that he couldn't facilitate dual players. Luke Egan would also have been there and it shows the depth of talent that Tullamore have – incidentally Cormac and Diarmuid Egan are brothers but are no relation to Luke and Ciaran Egan, who are also not related while a second Diarmuid Egan also came in as a sub last week.

Already, Ciaran Burns, John Furlong, Harry Plunkett, Diarmuid Egan, Ciaran Egan, Luke Egan, Cormac Egan and Oisin Keenan-Martin are key players for Tullamore senior footballers, who have reached the semi-final.

The treble that Tullamore won in 1977 can never be repeated. The age grades have changed – U-21 is now U-20 and the U-18 minor is U-17. Minor players are not allowed to play adult football as the GAA focuses on avoiding player burnout in that crucial 16 to 21 year age group.

However, Tullamore can go as close to it as can be doneto a similar treble in the modern era. They have now won the 2020 Minor and U-20 Football Championships this year and it will be a massive shock if they don't win the 2021 U-21. They are live contenders for the senior title and have a great chance here. There is merit in the argument that they are too young but youth can also be a great asset and the absence of fear from Tullamore's play could propel them to another title.

There is also a debate about when to introduce young players from the U-20 side into action with Offaly senior footballers. Offaly's senior management are likely to adopt a cautious approach but there is also merit in giving them their head early and letting them out there. Judgement calls will decide and it will be interesting to see how Tullamore get on at senior level this year.

It is very possible that their young players will lead them back to the promised land and if that happens, the names of John Furlong, Cormac Egan and Harry Plunkett will be spoken of in the same breath as White, Bracken, Whitney and Cronley in Tullamore. If Daire McDaid, superb as Furlong's replacement last week, goes onto play senior, he will make it a quartet – they can play at senior this year as their minor win over St Broughan's a few months ago was a 2020 competition.

Protecting these young players, without sheltering them, is of paramount importance for Tullamore and Offaly. John Furlong looks a cast iron certainty to have a long Offaly senior football career, Cormac Egan and Harry Plunkett have loads of potential.

Plunkett missed a couple of important football years as he lived near Wells in England and has done really well to get back playing very good football while Cormac Egan is a genuinely exciting, exhilarating talent. His speed, the way he takes on opponents and his score taking is superb. His game has really evolved in the past year and he is a huge prospect. He is also not guaranteed to come through and there is a particular fear of burnout with Egan, who is also a very good hurler.

He was on the Offaly 2020 minor hurling team and he is playing senior “B” and U-20 hurling for Tullamore. He has a big volume of games and he has looked a bit jaded in some of his most recent ones. Egan was very good without firing on all cylinders in the U-20 final and in fairness to Tullamore, they will be trying to manage the game load for these players.

They could perhaps have taken Cormac Egan off against Durrow but they didn't take any risks with John Furlong – they could have chanced him but didn't need to and that will help the player recover.

It is a different era than the 1970s and the indications are that these young players will stay with the games. John Furlong comes from Offaly footballing royalty while Cormac Egan is on a football scholarship at UCD and that should bring him on further.

Tullamore have been in the headlines for the wrong reasons lately with the row between them and the County Board over the O'Connor Park lease dominating life for both bodies. There is wrongs everywhere you look in this messy, unseemly row and it is shameful as both Offaly and Tullamore are going too well for distractions of this nature. The quicker it is put to bed, the sides see the wood from the trees and reach a fair compromise, the better for everyone involved.

Of course a row of this nature won't impact whatsoever on the players but it does take attention of officers away from the core business of games development. And that is something Tullamore are beginning to get very right. There have been plenty of times down the years when they didn't get it right but they are clearly on the right road now.

It could have big repercussions for Offaly GAA. History suggests that Tullamore won't embark on a run of Dublin type dominance but it is still possible. They have the population, the resources and the talent.

That has to be the aim for Tullamore. They have failed to win a Leinster club football title and that is a major blight on their record. It should be their long term aim but at the moment, it is a hugely exciting time for Tullamore. The future is bright and these young players are creating a treasure chest of enduring memories.

Proud Tullamore connection

A UNIQUE piece of history was created when Tullamore won the Tullamore Court Hotel U-20 Football Championship title last week in Tubber.

One of the Tullamore subs was a promising young forward Ben Connolly and his proud grandfather, Joe Connolly had played in a famous Tullamore Minor Football Championship win fifty years earlier in 1971.

Known far and wide as Dinjoe, he was a forward on an unfancied Tullamore side, who improved as the season progressed and took the title.

Trivia corner

Last week's answers are:

1 – How many trophies took up residence in Ferbane in 1972?

Answer: 4 – Sam Maguire, Leinster senior and junior football, Dowling Cup.

2 -When Fr Tom Gillooly was appointed Offaly senior football team manager in 1970, who were his three selectors?

Answer – Sean Brereton, Paddy McCormack and Alo Doyle.

3 – Who was the first man to be selected to play both football and hurling for Offaly?

Answer – Ned Holland, Tullamore.

This week's questions are:

1 – Name the man who won a Leinster minor football medal with Offaly in 1962, played U-21 and senior championship for Offaly and later in his career, won a Westmeath SFC medal with the Downs?

2 – The first lady delegate attended an Offal;y County Board meeting in July 1972. Her father was the club's second delegate. Name them and the club?

3 – Who was the top scorer in the 2017 senior “B” football final?

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

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