Encouraging collective and individual improvement as Offaly move forward under Fennelly

Encouraging collective and individual improvement as Offaly move forward under Fennelly

Liam Langton and Brian Duignan had good years for Offaly hurlers.

OFFALY senior hurlers achieved everything they could in 2021 and under any examination, that makes their season a resounding success.

Michael Fennelly's side surpassed expectations as they sauntered to promotion in Division 2A of the National Hurling League while they did what was expected of them as they eased to victory in the Christy Ring Cup.

It was a much different story from 2020 when Offaly failed in both those objectives. It meant that 2020 was a very traumatic season for Offaly hurling but with Covid-19 restrictions and lockdowns playing havoc with the season, there were extenuating circumstances. It also meant that Michael Fennelly's management did not come under the close scrutiny that it might have in another season.

That was fortunate as Fennelly and the players really turned thigs around this year. While winning the Christy Ring Cup and getting back up to the second tier Joe McDonagh Cup was the absolute priority for Offaly in 2021, the really big achievement was promotion to Division 1 in the National Hurling League.

Offaly were grouped with four Joe McDonagh Cup teams, Meath, Kerry, Carlow and Down along with one Christy Ring Cup team in Wicklow. They had failed to come out in 2020 but their form here was excellent. They were hungry, they were intense, highly motivated and fit. They played really well and most encouraging of all was the manner in which their touch and stick work had improved.

They looked like a real hurling team and they recorded a series of impressive wins: 3-25 to 3-9 against Meath, 2-28 to 0-13 v Kerry; 2-25 to 1-17 v Carlow and 5-25 to 1-19 v Down. It gave them the luxury of fielding a second string team for their final game against Wicklow and they continued on that form, winning by 1-32 to 0-10.

No one could have anticipated such a spate of comprehensive wins – Kerry, Carlow and Down had all beaten Offaly in the recent past and the manner of their wins really caught attention.

It all meant that Offaly were unbackable hot favourites for the Christy Ring Cup. They duly confirmed that ranking with three run away wins but there was still something dispiriting about the competition. On the surface it seems wrong to pick holes in three big wins: 2-39 to 2-17 against Sligo, 6-30 to 0-11 v Wicklow and 0-41 to 2-14 in the final against Derry.

However, the opposition was so inferior that it was impossible to get anyway excited. At times and for spells in games, Offaly's hurling was mediocre and some players reverted back to the fumbling and stuttering that has blighted the game in the county for a few years. After the league, the championship came as a huge anti-climax and that is not the way things should be. We can take it, however, that this was aberration, brought on by players not being fully tuned in against sides that could not beat them in a month of Sundays.

It would be wrong to focus on the Christy Ring Cup, to over analyse it. It very much looks like Offaly are moving in the right direction, that they are improving and that the league is a more accurate barometer of where they are and where they are going.

No matter what the opposition, Offaly exceeded a cumulative tally of forty points in their three Christy Ring Cup games and they couldn't have done much more than than. It is easy to be demanding, to look for the perfect peformance: intense, sharp and clinical. That level of performance wasn't necessary, however and if Offaly had produced it, what would it have led to: 50 points, a bagful of goals and if they did that, what purpose would it serve other than destroying already beleagured opposition.

It is not realistic to expect players to be fully tuned in against such obviously inferior opposition and the best thing to be said about the Christy Ring Cup is that Offaly are now out of it and hopefully they will never go back there again.

The league was a more accurate reflection of where Offaly were and there were clear signs of improvement under Michael Fennelly. Their hurling was of a much higher order than 2020 and there were times when it was really encouraging, exciting to watch.

As the Kilkenny man has warned, Offaly are still a long way from being a top tier county. They could not live with Limerick at the moment, and a few more of the All-Ireland contenders. They will play them in Division 1 of the National Hurling League next year. Fennelly is right that this is too big of a jump for Offaly and they will probably receive some bad beatings but they will also be looking for the gold in the format – and it does give them an opportunity to play the best, to see how they get on and how far they are off the mark. They will learn from it.

The real target next year will be promotion in the Joe McDonagh Cup and their form this year suggests that will be very achievable. There was a considerable shake up in the Offaly panel from last year – Cillian Kiely was the most notable departure and others also left.

The players that remained displayed commendable collective and individual improvement. Some of them produced their best most consistent seasons for Offaly. Liam Langton and Oisin Kelly in particular really stood up to be counted and achieved a new level of consistency. In the past they have floated in and out of games, had off days and frustrated as much as generating excitement in supporters but they were a revelation in 2021 and had their best season in the Offaly jersey.

There is a real honesty among this squad, an obvious desire and commitment and further improvement is possible. There are good young players ready to emerge on to the scene and at the moment, people just want to see commitment, honesty and improvement. Time will tell about how much improvement Offaly can make – there may be limits on it and these may well be short of a return to being a competitive top tier side but that is what Offaly are aiming for and all they can do it take it one step at a time.

Michael Fennelly's influence was clearly seen in 2021 as he worked on the physical, skills and mental side of things. He has a good management team around him and the players responded to them. It meant that 2021 was a good season and that is certainly a stark change from their first season.

The following is a brief summary of how the Offaly players fared in 2021 – the Christy Ring Cup final panel is used:

Conor Clancy – Clancy played all the games apart from the league win over Wicklow. He was excellent for the most part. Competent under the high ball, he guarded his net well and his distribution was generally top class, apart from an odd ball in the Christy Riung Cup.

Paddy Delaney – Delaney had a steady year, doing his primary defensive duty well.

Ciaran Burke – Burke had a couple of outstanding games, when he was imperious at full back, lording his area. He struggled against Sligo in the Christy Ring Cup but in general, he was very solid.

David King – The Coolderry man had a good year and used the ball well.

Aidan Treacy – Aidan Treacy did well. He defended well and his ability to pick off long range points was a great asset.

Ben Conneely – Conneely is now the pulse of the Offaly hurling team, an inspirational leader who drives everyone all. He had an excellent 2021.

Killian Sampson – Killian Sampson really came of age with some outstanding wing back displays. He also got forward for scores and will improve further.

Leon Fox – A hard worker, what you see is what you get with Leon Fox. He has improvements to do but he puts in a huge volume of work at midfield, bringing much needed physicality to the table.

Ross Ravenhill – Ross Ravenhill had some outstanding games, particularly in the league. He needs to get a bit more consistent but he was very comfortable at this level and does the simple thing well.

John Murphy – John Murphy really grabbed his chance in 2021. He was on the second string team in the league against Wicklow but started the Christy Ring Cup final and semi-final. He could take his time in settling into games, but once he did, he was lively and accurate. A player who really came on as the year progressed.

Liam Langton – Liam Langton was a revelation in 2021, bringing a much more consistent edge to the silky, innovative skills that he possesses. He reverted back into some bad habits in the Christy Ring Cup, particularly in the final against Derry but against better opposition in the league, he was brilliant and that says a lot.

Jason Sampson – Another player, who was accurate and worked hard, Jason Sampson will have learnt a lot in 2021. He had plenty of very good spells in games and can look back with satisfaction on his year's work, knowing that he can come on further next year.

Eoghan Cahill – Cahill is now Offaly's main forward, a phenomenal scorer from frees and play. He can have the odd miss but they are rare and he is deadly accurate for the most part. He has tremendous skill and had a great year.

Brian Duignan – Brian Duignan brings a lot to the table for Offaly. He had quiet games or quiet spells in games but there were also games where he ran the opposition ragged, scoring freely. His appetite for this level of hurling is obvious and he brings a different, extra ingredient to the Offaly team. He will be trying to get more consistent but he is very much on the right road.

Oisin Kelly – Oisin Kelly was one of the big success stories in 2021. He was brilliant, a man of the match contender in a few games and finding a level of consistency that he simply didn't have in the past. His ability to beat opponents and scores goals is one of the big strengths in this Offaly team.

Stephen Corcoran – Sub goalkeeper, he kept a clean sheet against Wicklow in the league.

Jordan Quinn – Jordan Quinn will look back on the season with mixed memories. He did some very good hurling in the defence but struggled in the league against Carlow and lost his place after this. He came on as a sub in a couple of games after this and will have learnt a lot from the year. Despite losing his place, he knuckled down and kept his shoulder to the wheel, which was a good sign. He will improve.
Padraic Guinan – Padraic Guinan's chances were limited in 2021, coming on as a sub in the league against Kerry and Down and starting against Wicklow. He did well when he did get a chance.

Joey Keenaghan – Joey Keenaghan was unlucky in 2021. He got injured after just five minutes against Meath and got limited opportunities after that. He did show good form and 2021 was about learning and experience for him.

Eimhin Kelly – Kelly started against Wicklow in the league. He came on as a sub in a few games and didn't let anyone down.

Luke O'Connor – Luke O'Connor has plenty of potential and he showed this in 2021. He started in the league against Wicklow, where he was man of the match and he came on as a sub in most other games. He is fast, skilful and can score. He has improvements to make but another year's training will bring him and his physicality on and his target will be a starting place in 2022.
Shane Dooley – Now in the latter stages of a long career, it will be interesting to see if Shane Dooley gives it another year in 2022. He still has plenty to offer at this level, albeit as an impact sub rather than a starter or 70 minute player. He did well when he did get onto the field in 2021.

Damien Egan – Damien Egan is a steady, determined hurler and he started in the league against Carlow and Wicklow.

Colm Gath – Gath only came on as a sub in the Carlow league and Wicklow and Derry championship games.

Jack Screeney – Drafted onto the panel of 26 late in the year, Screeney is one for the future.

Shane Kinsella – Shane Kinsella started the early league games but was a sub for the championship. He got some good scores and caused defenders plenty of problems.

Trivia corner

Last week's answers are:

1 – History was made in the Offaly Senior Football Championship in 1989 when Ferbane beat Rhode in the final. How?

Answer – It was the first decade that two clubs won four senior football titles each – Walsh Island and Ferbane.

2 – Who was the first man to receive the Dowling Cup twice.

Answer – Mick Casey, Rhode.

3 – Name the father and son who played for Offaly in All-Ireland football finals?

Answer – Paddy and Stephen Byrne, Kilcormac: 1964 and 1992 Vocational Schools.

This week's questions are:

1 – Two sets of brothers started the 1992 All-Ireland club hurling final for Birr. Name them?

2 – In 1973, Offaly won the Leinster senior football and the Grounds Tournament. Name the captains?

3 – Name the only man to captain Offaly in both senior football and hurling?

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

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