19 Jan 2022

Realistic Stack keeping his feet on the ground as Tullamore look for bright future

Realistic Stack keeping his feet on the ground as Tullamore look for bright future

Niall Stack.

BACK in 2000, Niall Stack was a key member of the Tullamore team that ended a long, barren twenty three year famine by winning the Offaly Senior Football Championship.

Now he is the manager as Tullamore bid to end a much shorter, but nonetheless concerning, eight year gap since their last title win in 2013.

There is great optimism about the future of Tullamore football. It is a hope built on the emergence of outstanding young talent. John Furlong, Cormac Egan and Harry Plunkett have made the team this year, having been minors in 2020 as Tullamore lost to Rhode in the senior final. Furlong, Egan and Oisin Keenan-Martin were excellent as Offaly won the All-Ireland U-20 Football Championship this year while Ciaran Egan played well when used on that exciting side.

With other players waiting to emerge on the wings, the future looks very bright for Tullamore but it all comes with a warning sign blazing in red neon lights. Tullamore's track record at retaining outstanding young talent and seeing them come through for long senior careers is very poor compared to many of their rivals.

Stack is aware of the drain of talent that has slipped through their fingers over a long number of years and he said last week:

“I don't think for a minute as a club we can take it for granted that all of these young lads will kick on and have long sterling careers. In this town history shows that we tend to produce very good young lads that maybe for various reasons, be it career, burn out, loss of love of the game, but they don't continue playing. I could name five or six and you could name five or six but that is just the way it has been in the past. While I hope that they will have long sterling careers for the club, I definitely wouldn't be taking it for granted.”

He agreed that the introduction of young players out of minor straight onto the senior team has given them a huge boost.

“It is massive and I suppose a measure of how good those young lads are and how quick football has gone and how much commitment is required to play football that we are actually almost relying on 18, 19 or 20 year olds in this group. When you look at our team in particular, probably two thirds of our team at any point in time are made up of under 20 players. Last year would have been the same so the three boys have fitted in well but I knew they would as they are three very good players. We have a couple more next year that I think could do the same.”

While there is real excitement about Tullamore's young talent, Stack is very much keeping his feet on the ground.

“I wouldn't tend to get carried away with what we have coming. We have seen this is the past. If you go back to what we did in 2012, we won a minor with a very talented minor group, we won a junior and a senior the following year and we haven't won an adult championship since, so you can just see the comparisons to this year. We won a minor last year, we are in both finals in the adult grade (senior and junior football) and with a town nothing can be taken for granted between injuries and workload of players, dual commitments and everything else. It is an exciting time but we just have to see how it goes.”

With the talent Tullamore have and the size of the town, there is a body of opinion that suggests they should be able to embark on a Dublin type dominance but history suggests this won't happen.

Stack agreed: “History would say that is not going to happen but it doesn't mean it won't happen. I would love to see it happen, however, we haven't done back to back as a club in nearly 100 years (1924-26). We won three in a row 1911-13.”

Back in 1977, Tullamore won the Senior, U-21 and Minor Football Championships and looked equipped to dominate but didn't win the Dowling Cup again until 2000.

“I was part of that 2000 team. We won again in 2002 and you start to think could we start knocking on a few more but we have only had four since 1977, which is a pretty poor record when you look at what Rhode have done and you have to commend Rhode for that, it is an unbelievable record. “

The fact that you have four lads in the dressing room that won All-Ireland U-20 medals this year and would have a fifth only for Harry (Plunkett), how big a help is that?

“I don't think it makes much difference. I don't think these young lads dwell too much on what has happened or gone before them. They just have a fresh mindset in terms of trying to win games every time they go out. I think as a bunch we don't carry the baggage maybe that Tullamore teams carried in the past because we're young, we're fresh, there's competition, so I don't think it makes all that much of a difference but definitely in terms of the standard of player it has definitely helped us as a group.”

He was questioned about the reasons for Tullamore losing outstanding talents in the past. Is it a town thing?

“Yeah, I think it is a town thing if I am honest. We could all think of different lads who fell away in the past. I think other sports in the past have taken away, for want of a better word, certain players. Rugby has taken away Gearoid O'Grady in the past, golf was Eoin Marsden's first love. We produced very good soccer players in the town, who tended to be very good forwards, but their first love wasn't really Gaelic football, but that's the way it was. And we have produced very good hurlers in the club whose first love hasn't been football. I think it is the whole nature of being a dual club and being in a town competing with other sports and obviously emigration as well and things like that.”

A big factor for Tullamore this year has been trying to manage the game load of those young players. Cormac Egan is out for the final with a bad hamstring tear and John Furlong, Oisin Keenan-Martin and Ciaran Egan have all contended with injuries. It has created a very stressful time for the club and management as they dealt with a huge volume of fixtures. Cormac Egan did his hamstring after a punishing schedule of two football (senior and U-20) and two hurling (senior “B” and U-20) most weeks and others have played more games than might be healthy.

“It has been horrendously difficult and very stresssful on the group and on the players. You see our age profile and all our young lads are either in school or university and their school and university work commitments are suffering. They are spending less time at home. Their game load actually is three games a week because they are potentially playing within seven days, three games, so it has been very hard to balance and as a club we've treated every competition with the utmost respect in terms of U-20 football, U-20 hurling, Senior B hurling and Senior football and Junior football and Junior Hurling, as a result of which it has probably cost us and that is just the way fixtures are. I did think it was unnecessary to have the U-20 football championship running at this time if I am honest and U-20 hurling and as a result we have picked up knocks, something Rhode don't have to deal with as well.”

He confirmed that Cormac Egan won't be playing in the final.

“I'm not sure what the official line is but he is not going to make the final. In terms of where his recovery will be, he has to go and get professional advice on that now but he is not going to be available for the final.

“He is a big loss and he is a big loss to this group. Cormac is a very direct player, something that you can't nearly coach into fellows. I had him in school and he played the same way and he has brought it straight to another level. You saw him with the U-20s and the senior team so far with us, he attracts attention, he makes defenders honest and we could really do with him but that's the way it is.”

John Furlong is battling injuries and a tired body for the final.

“Again it will be touch and go with John. He had to play an U-20 game last night and I am just monitoring him to see. His body is reacting badly to his workload basically and he is finding it very hard to recover from anything he is doing.”

The manager is unsure about the fitness of Oisin Keenan-Martin and Ciaran Egan – both went off in the semi-final win over Ferbane.”

“Again I am not sure at the minute and the same with Ciaran Egan I am not sure at the minute, I am waiting for the results of an MRI scan on him as well.”

In his second year as Tullamore manager, Stack agreed that things feel different this year.

“It's my second year with this group now so I know them better. We're a bit more developed and down the road in our development so it does feel a bit better. I think our preparation is a lot stronger compared to last year.”

Tullamore were beaten by Rhode in the final last year but winged it to the decider, losing to Cappincur and Rhode in the group and only beating Ferbane on penalties in the semi-final.

“We didn't have the benefit of a league campaign either last year, we only had a couple of challenge games, which is very difficult going into a championship. You are still trying to find your feet right at the very beginning of the championship. This year we actually targeted the league and luckily enough we ended up winning that and that gave us a boost going into this year's championship. The only thing at the same time was we still managed to draw two games, which could have gone either way. But it has been different. I don't know if we are getting a bit more consistent but we seem to be able to be a bit more stubborn as a group and maybe we even drew games that potentially we would have lost in the past.”

He agreed that Tullamore are playing better this year.

“Yeah, I would like to think we are. I think it was a drier Summer and a lot of those lads we introduced last year are a year on playing. We still managed to blood four or five debutants again this year but we are well into double figures in two years into how many have played senior football, which is a big, big thing.”

How important is it for Tullamore to win a title.

“It is very important. There is no point dressing it up. We as a club have our standards and we have our history, eight years is a hell of a long time for us as a club not to be winning championships so it is very important. It is very important as well for the people of the town to have something to celebrate and for people around the club to have something to hang on to and celebrate. Please God we can do it but we'll take nothing for granted. I have no doubt looking at the the preparation we've had in comparison to Rhode's and the conditions the way they are turning at this time of year they will be hot favourites but we certainly won't fear them.”

It was suggested that Tullamore were big outsiders last year but it is a lot closer to 50/50 this year with Rhode looking vulnerable in some games.

“I won't lie, I thought last year, despite public opinion, that we were well good enough to beat Rhode on our day and my opinion hasn't changed. I still think we are well good enough to beat Rhode on their day. I think our preparation hasn't been ideal due to our U-20 commitments and our dual commitments, we have picked up far more knocks than I would have liked, but you won't be getting any excuses out of me. If we perform to the best of our ability I think we are more than capable of beating Rhode, that's for sure.”

Stack again pointed out that their results this year has included draws with Edenderry and Shamrocks and a semi-final win over a severely understrength Ferbane side.

“I wouldn't be getting carried away with our consistency. The only positive I would take out of it is that we have got a bit stubborn and maybe have become a little harder to beat.”

And he is under no illusions about the challenge Rhode present in a final and how difficult they are to beat.

“They sure are and I've watched them very closely this year again and they are such a well oiled machine. They are gone a little bit more defensive as well, looking at their style, and they finish games. They do what they do, they never lose and they always seem to be in control and never seem to be uncomfortable, which is a big feature of their game and I would be hoping that we can make them uncomfortable and make things a bit more difficult for them than it has been so far.”

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