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29 Jan 2022

Day of reckoning for Tullamore as Rhode aim to continue golden run

Day of reckoning for Tullamore as Rhode aim to continue golden run

Ciaran Egan and Conor McNamee battle it out in last year's final.

IT all feels very different as champions Rhode and Tullamore prepare for their second successive meeting in the Offaly Senior Football Championship final.

A year ago, anxiety pervaded the air and only a handful of spectators were allowed in as Covid 19 restrictions and lockdown dominated Irish life.

Now life feels a lot more normal – there will be a full quota of spectators in O'Connor Park on Sunday with the attendance likely to exceed 5,000 people. A year ago, frozen players huddled in the cold in the stand during their half time talk and now they will be allowed into the dressing rooms.

On the field too, it all feels very different. A year ago, Tullamore had scraped into the final. They suffered a shock defeat to Cappincur in the first round, were beaten by Rhode and a win over Clara got them out of the group by the skin of their teeth. In the semi-final, they had beaten Ferbane on a penalty shootout and their form was anything but convincing.

Their chickens came home to roost in the final. They final scoreline may have read 1-9 to 1-7 and Tullamore may have had a goal disallowed deep into injury time but Rhode were clear masters on the day, a lot more comprehensive winners than the final scoreline suggests.

This year, it is a very different story. Rhode are once again contenders but they have looked more vulnerable than they have in some time. There are still doubts about Tullamore – after all, they only drew with Shamrocks and Edenderry in the group and while they were brilliant against Bracknagh, the opposition was subsequently relegated. Tullamore looked good in their 4-10 to 0-14 win over Ferbane but the losers were severely understrength – missing the injured Oisin Kelly and Cian Johnson along with the suspended Joe Maher. With a full quota on board, Ferbane would have been a damn sight closer and the impression that they might have won is inescapable.

Yet Tullamore look in way better health than last year. Quite simply, they are playing better, they are moving with much greater cohesion and they have found the ability to grind out results, to dig deep in games.

Part of the reason for Tullamore's improvement is down to the injection of young talent. They have introduced three brilliant young footballers from minor ranks. John Furlong and Cormac Egan were outstanding as Offaly won the All-Ireland U-20 Football Championship while Harry Plunkett would have been on the panel only for going on holidays before the Leinster final against Dublin. Another key U-20 player, Oisin Keenan-Martin has also been a great presence for Tullamore this year.

Unfortunately, a very heavy schedule of games has taken its toll on Tullamore's young stars. Cormac Egan has suffered a bad hamstring injury and Tullamore manager Niall Stack has confirmed that he won't be playing in the final – indeed, it could be some months before he plays football again as medical experts decide whether an operation is necessary. That is a shame for the player and also supporters, who would loved to have seen how he would play in a semi-final and final. John Furlong has also been hit by injury, only coming on as a sub against Ferbane while Keenan-Martin has had his problems too and he came off with a head injury in the semi-final.

Another U-20 panelist, Ciaran Egan went off injured against Ferbane and Tullamore are awaiting news on his availability for the final - Ciaran Egan is not related to Cormac and his brother Diarmuid and is also no relation to another exciting forward, Luke Egan, Ironically, Plunkett is the only member of those new young players firing on all cylinders and that is probably because he had a rest from football as the All-Ireland series wound to a conclusion.

It is a hugely exciting time for Tullamore. They won the 2020 Minor and U-20 Football Championships earlier this year with Cormac Egan, Furlong and Plunkett outstanding on both teams while they are hot favourites for this year's U-20 football. They have a unique array of talent coming on line and all the ducks are lined up for them to enter a golden era. Indeed with the size of the town and the numbers at their disposal, they should be able to embark on a Dublin type domination of Offaly football. That, however, may not happen. Down the years, Tullamore have lost a lot of outstanding talent as players drifted off the scene due a variety of reasons. It doesn't happen in other clubs and while you would expect the above named players to come through and have long careers, you never know with Tullamore.

It all has Tullamore on high alert at the moment. Back in 1977, they won a golden triology of Senior, U-21 and Minor Football Championships in the one year but then embarked on a long famine, not winning a senior football title again until 2000 – their current manager Niall Stack was a member of that 2000 team.

If Rhode had the same talent emerging as Tullamore, you could be fairly certain that they would dominate Offaly football but that confidenc does not exist with the capital town. Rhode have done it with their own golden generation of the McNamee's, Darby's, Sullivan's and so many more and they would do it again. Tullamore, however, haven't dominated Offaly football in decades – in fact, you have to go all the way back to 1926 for the last time they retained the championship: they completed three in a row that time.

Rhode meanwhile have been the most powerful force of nature Offaly club football has seen. Since ending their own 23 year famine in 1998, they have enjoyed an incredible run of sustained success. They have won twelve titles since then, including three in a row from 2004 to 2006 and 2016 to 2018. Only Ferbane in 2019 stopped them from claiming five in a row and on their day, they have been almost unbeatable.

While a hardcore of players have featured in most of their successes, they have regularly fed outstanding new talent into the team over the years – fantastic footballers such as Paschal Kellaghan and Roy Malone were replaced by players such as Anton Sullivan and Eoin Rigney. They have of course benefitted greatly from the influence of one of Offaly's greatest forwards Niall McNamee – they certainly would not have won as much without him.

Now there are concerns about the future for them and their underage success has dried up but they remain ravenously hungry, absolutely determined to milk their current run for what they can get.

They do enter this final in very strange territory with more doubts about their form than usual. The reason is mainly Durrow. Rhode suffered a shock first round defeat to Durrow in the group. They may have been vastly understrength that day but it was still a huge shock to their system and put them in the uncomfortable position of not being certain of making it out of the group. They recovered with a routine win over Cappincur and a deserved success against Ferbane. Their best performance of the year was against Shamrocks in the quarter-final while they renewed rivarly against Durrow in the semi-final. Their victory was never really in doubt but Rhode still weren't entirely convincing in a 3-9 to 0-10 win.

It sets the scene for a compelling game of football and there is another undercurrent here. While Tullamore have lost way more games than they have won in recent years, they have been able to beat them in big knockout games and have a lack of fear of the champions that no other club can match.

For Tullamore, this is potentially a life changing game. Suggestions last week that they could be about to embark on a Dublin type dominance were not bitten on for obvious reasons, though Johnny Moloney did wear a slightly incredulous smile. After all, he is now one of Tullamore's longest serving players and only too aware that it is 2013 since he got his first and only medal. Tullamore will settle for one at the moment and let the rest take care of itself.

For Rhode, there is the chance to set more records. To bring Alan McNamee's haul of medals up to 13, to move further ahead of Tullamore in the roll of honour but for them it is all about winning and enjoying football. They have been hit with injuries this year – defenders Eoin Rigney and Jake Kavanagh are out for this, Paul McPadden is very doubtful with a shoulder injury and their resources are being tested to breaking point. However, they remain the most potent outfit in Offaly and it will take one massive performance by Tullamore to deny them another title.


MATCH ANALYSIS


PATHS TO THE FINAL

Rhode: Group 1, Durrow 3-8, Rhode 2-9; Rhode 1-16, Cappincur 0-8; Rhode 4-12, Ferbane 3-13. Quarter-final, Rhode 1-17, Shamrocks 2-9. Semi-final, Rhode 3-9, Durrow 0-10.

Tullamore: Group 2, Tullamore 1-11, Shamrocks 1-11; Tullamore 3-13, Bracknagh 0-8; Tullamore 0-15, Edenderry 2-9. Semi-final, Tullamore 4-10, Ferbane 0-14.


MANAGEMENTS

Rhode: Manager, Malachy McNulty; Selectors, Stephen Darby and Antony Murphy.

Tullamore: Manager, Niall Stack; Selectors, James Buckley, Gary Heffernan and James Keane.


CAPTAINS

Rhode: Dylan Kavanagh and Ruari McNamee.

Tullamore: Johnny Moloney and Michael Brazil.


STAR MAN

Rhode: Niall McNamee;

Tullamore: Johnny Moloney.


KEY PLAYERS

Rhode: Niall Darby, Anton Sullivan, Ruari McNamee and Aaron Kellaghan.

Tullamore: John Furlong, Aaron Leavy, Diarmuid Egan and Luke Egan.


BIG BATTLE

As usual, Niall McNamee's performance will dictate a lot here. Tullamore will have watched the semi-final between Durrow and Rhode with interest. Durrow placed a big man, Ciaran Burke on McNamee and he did well, sticking to him like glue and annoying him. Tullamore won't really have such a player. They can't take Johnny Moloney out of the centre to mark him and while they might be tempted to go with Ciaran Burns, it would be a big ask for the very tidy defender. John Furlong could be a solution but isn't physically strong enough yet while he is managing injuries but he would certainly stick to McNamee and not wander off from it. It will be interesting to see their game plan.


VERDICT

A very tough one to call. Past history suggests that Rhode will win. There may be doubts about them but they are always capable of turning it on in a final. It is hard to know about Tullamore. There is always an uncertainty surrounding young players and many are playing their first final. They could inspire them to a win but equally the occasion could overtake them. It's a lot closer to a 50/50 game than last year when Rhode were clear favourites. Tullamore need a lot to go right to win but you would expect them to be very competitive. They may not be able to pull it off but they do have their best chance of beating Rhode in several years.

Verdict – Tullamore.

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