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30 Nov 2021

THE MAN BEHIND THE WIRE: Cloghan successes should be embraced by Offaly footballing public

Cloghan successes should be embraced by Offaly footballing public

Cloghan captain Niall Flannery receiving the U-15 FC Cup from Coiste na nOg's Tomas Flattery.

IT has been a memorable week for St Rynagh's Football Club and the general Cloghan area. Cloghan captured the U-15 Football Championship title last Tuesday week with a run away 2-16 to 1-4 win over St Vincent's while they took the Minor “B” Football Championship title on Saturday with a 1-4 to 0-5 victory against Kilcormac-Killoughey.

Cloghan's win, particularly the U-15 football one, has been greeted with a less than enthusiastic reaction by some football supporters in other areas and they have had to endure some sarcastic, not to mention withering comments in various online forums about the composition of their team and the size of the pick they have.

The sides are called Cloghan rather than St Rynagh's as they have permission players from a number of clubs in the broader south Offaly area. This has led to comments about the volume of players they can pick from, complaints about it being an uneven playing field and in some ways, it has taken some of the gloss off what has been an exceptional week for the club and one that they should be celebrating for what it is.

As with a lot of things, the facts don't back up the stories and innuendo when it comes to Cloghan. They are not a giant club covering the entire breadth of south Offaly. Yes they do have players from outside the Cloghan-Banagher parish but it is only a handful.

The U-15 team that started against St Vincent's comprised of 10 players from St Rynagh's, two from Lusmagh, two from Ballyskenach and one from Drumcullen. Traditionally, players from Lusmagh have played with St Rynagh's at underage and adult level for several years. 20 of the 23 players on the panel were from that St Rynagh's – Lusmagh combination: Just four of these were from Lusmagh, the two on the team and two subs

The minor “B” team on Saturday had one player from CRC Gaels (Crinkle and Carrig-Riverstown) and Kinnitty, three from Lusmagh and ten from St Rynagh's – the two Lusmagh players who started in the U-15 final were subs on the minor team and the rest were from the host club.

It may be true that they could get a lot more players from various clubs all across south Offaly and it is probably true that they would not be successful without the assistance of the players they have had but they have not embarked on any big recruitment drive, instead accepting the players who come to them.

St Rynagh's have had a great run of success in underage football in recent years. They won back to back U-13 football titles in 2018 and 2019 and this U-15 team is essentially the same one that won in 2019. The target now will be to win the Minor Football Championship in 2023 and considering the extent of their win over St Vincent's, that should be very achievable – though big changes can, and do, take place between U-15 and under 17.

It would be particularly ironic for any big parish underage club to be complaining or making adverse comments about Cloghan winning. The Cloghan U-15 team included players from five clubs and that is just one more than St Vincent's which is an underage amalgamation of Ballycommon, Cappincur, Daingean and Kilclonfert. The four clubs in the Vincent's catchment area are very serious football clubs – Cappincur are senior, Ballycommon and Daingean intermediate and Kilclonfert are junior. The only real difference is that Cloghan goes outside parish boundaries – and the parish rule has been a fundamental of Offaly GAA since the very early days.

St Rynagh's are the only club in the Cloghan amalgamation who fielded an adult team in 2021. Lusmagh, Ballyskenach-Killavilla and Drumcullen didn't enter any adult football championship while Kinnitty entered junior “B” but didn't field. St Rynagh's had two teams, an intermediate and junior “B” while there were seven adult teams in Daingean parish – two each from Cappincur, Daingean and Ballycommon and one from Kilclonfert.

The reality is that there is almost no football played in south Offaly at the moment. Birr have often had competitive junior football teams but they didn't enter this year. No more than hurling in many parts of north Offaly, there is no appetite, no desire for football in much of south Offaly.

Birr was the only club in the hurling heartland in south Offaly to enter an underage football championship in 2021 and that was only in U-13. Kilcormac-Killoughey did field teams in U-13, 15 and 17 football and that was good to see – K/K straddles the traditional divide between south and north Offaly and they do have a fine footballing tradition, even if they often pay mere lip service to the game – particularly at adult level where they are competitive in lower grade championships but generally put in very little preparation. The extent of their preparation for underage football is likely to vary from team to team but at least they are entering and making an effort.

The emergence of a small number of players interested in playing the game in areas such as Ballyskenach etc is a quite recent phenomenon and St Rynagh's have benefitted from that but it is not something they have pursued with ruthless intent. Instead, they are more in the role of facilitators, providing an outlet for the handful who are interested in football. Even if they were allowed to field players from Coolderry, Shinrone, all parts of south Offaly, it would not be in St Rynagh's own interest to embark on a big recruitement campaign. This would result in them leaving some of their own players off, not getting games and providing for players who would be unlikely to field with them in the future.

In the balance of probabilities, most of the young players playing with Cloghan from Ballyskenach, Drumcullen etc will drift away from the game as they approach adulthood – there seems to be a better chance of the Lusmagh players staying with the game. Hurling will be the game of choice for the vast majority of them and they won't be interested in playing football and travelling to Cloghan if they prosper with the sliotar. Yet, you never know and it is great for Offaly football to have players playing from these areas.

You can be sure that many in those hurling clubs don't want players playing football and anyone promoting football in those areas is swimming against a very strong tide. That, however, isn't to say that a truly outstanding footballer won't emerge from one of those clubs. The next Niall McNamee could come from Ballyskenach and the taste of success with Cloghan could be the spark that lights the fire in him.

Of course, that is unlikely but the football areas in north Offaly should be embracing the Cloghan successes and looking at the broader picture. St Rynagh's football club provides an oasis for the game in what is very strong hurling territory.

There is a proud, great tradition of football in the Cloghan area. They have provided some great footballers for Offaly over the years. Greg Hughes was one of the best full backs in the country in his heyday in the 1960s – he won Leinster senior football medals in 1960, 1961, 1969 and 1971 and was a sub on the team that won the first All-Ireland senior football title in 1971. John Coughlan and Damien McIntyre were on the team that won the All-Ireland Minor Football Championship in 1964.

They have had several other players who have played football for Offaly at various levels. Ger Rafferty in particular and Paudie Mulhare played a lot of football for Offaly in the 2000s while Joey O'Connor has been their most recent player to play senior football for the county.

There are a lot of hugely passionate, enthusiastic football people in Cloghan and its townslands. Football is their driving force but it is often an uphill battle for them. They are surrounded on all sides by hurling territory. Belmont and the great football stronghold of Ferbane is to its west while they also border Kilcormac-Killoughey and Drumcullen. The areas outside their parish doesn't bother them but within their parish, they often play second fiddle to their sister club, St Rynagh's Hurling Club.

There are a lot of good footballers in the Banagher area, players who could make a big difference to St Rynagh's Football Club but they opt to concentrate on hurling. It is currently a great time for St Rynagh's Hurling Club and this decision is understandable. As a result, they had only four dual players on the squad that had a fairly miserable day at the office when they lost to Walsh Island in the Senior “B” Football Championship quarter-final this year: Pat Camon, Dermot Shortt, Joey O'Connor and Sean Dolan. Camon, O'Connor and Dolan are all from Cloghan and only Shortt is a Banagher man. Another Cloghan man, Niall Wynne probably would have played only for injury.

Hurling is the first choice game for Camon and Dolan and is the code that they have represented Offaly in at senior level – though both have been very committed to the football cause in Cloghan. One of Offaly's greatest ever hurlers, Martin Hanamy is from Cloghan – he played a lot of very good football with St Rynagh's along with his fellow 1990s team mate, Banagher man Michael Duignan, but hurling was the game that he prospered in and achieved national stardom in.

Some more of Offaly's most iconic hurling names played football with St Rynagh's and played underage and indeed senior football for Offaly before concentrating on the small ball game. Cloghan man Paudge Mulhare and Banagher man Padraig Horan are two that spring instantly to mind.

Many more of the St Rynagh's senior hurling team would be more than capable of playing club senior football but don't and that is a choice they are fully entitled to make. It has meant that St Rynagh's have been unable to transition from being an honest, difficult to beat team into true contenders. They have had spells in senior football but they never really bothered the big guns and it was always only a matter of time before they went back down.

This year, they had to call on the services of two players in their 40s, Ger Rafferty and Gary Mahon and another, Tomas Flattery played last year. Numbers are an ongoing concern for them. They may be in senior “B” football at the moment but are closer to an intermediate than a senior “A” team.

They need the permission players from Lusmagh to survive at senior “B” level. One of them, Graham Lynch is an excellent club footballer: fast, accurate and exciting in full flow. Two more also featured this year with Padraig Corcoran starting against St Rynagh's and Martin Byrne coming on as a late sub – ironically, he shouldn't have come on as he replaced Joey O'Connor who had been red carded in an ugly late melee but the Rynagh's mentors thought he had come off for a blood injury as he received a belt to his nose.

St Rynagh's football and hurling clubs were formed towards the mid 1960s. At the time, GAA affairs were very fragmented within the parish and it is worth briefly outlining the GAA history in the parish. Ironically, Banagher was predominantly a football club in its early days. It was formed as a Football Club in 1886 and were beaten in a replayed senior football final in 1890 – the early Offaly GAA championships were subsequently declared void, expunged from the record and the official ones only date from 1896. They won the Senior Football Championship title in 1888 (only them and Rahan enterered the first championship in those very chaotic early years) and 1910, conceded a walkover to Tullamore in the 1913 final but by the 1930s, Banagher was very much a hurling club.

Cloghan was football territory and they were quite successful up to the 1960s. Cloghan won the Senior Football Championship in 1903, were beaten in finals in 1896, 1897, 1905, 1906, 1916 and 1918, finally won again in 1945 and were defeated in further finals in 1947, 1949, 1951, 1956 and 1959, when they last appeared in the decider.

Cloghan football had a fairly notorious reputation in many of those decades, noted for their toughness, on and off the ball, and occasionally, on and off the pitch as well, though as always with these type of stories, it is often difficult to separate fact from fiction.

St Rynagh's was formed in 1961 with two separate clubs – a football one based in Cloghan, hurling in Banagher. They are two separate clubs but selecting from the same pool of players. Prior to the St Rynagh's formation, there were a lot of clubs in the parish – in the decade or so before it, Cloghan, Banagher, Shannon Rovers, Shannonharbour and Ballivor existed for different spells.

The establishment of St Rynagh's was one of the most important developments in Offaly GAA. It changed the lanmdscape of Offaly hurling and this was a crucial ingredient in the 1980 Leinster senior hurling breakthrough and the subsequent success story in the 1980s and 1990s. St Rynagh's won their first senior hurling title in 1965. They ended the dominance of Coolderry and Drumcullen, embarking on a sensational run that saw them win fifteen senior hurling titles from 1965 and 1993 and another few in recent years.

Yet it had a flip side for football in the parish. As St Rynagh's became an unstoppable hurling force of nature, football suffered and it is no co-incidence that they have never competed in a senior football final since the formation.

That is the environment that St Rynagh's football club lives in now and that is why their recent success should be embraced with open arms and not criticised. Cloghan orSt Rynagh's won't be emerging as an all conquering dominant football force, and other clubs shouldn't be afraid of them.

In fact, the big town standalone clubs have more grounds for complaint than parish amalgamation and they generally don't – or at least, not too loudly! Since big parish underage clubs got properly organised in the last decade plus, some of these have struggled. Edenderry won their first minor football title last Saturday since 2007, Clara haven't won since 2001. Offaly's most successful football club, Rhode have been without a minor title since 2010.

They know, however, that it doesn't follow through into adult ranks and that they will remain contenders for the Senior Football Championship – with the exception of Clara who were relegated last year before winning promotion this year. Ferbane-Belmont have had a great run of underage success for a number of years but this has been done with the crucial assistance of some excellent young footballers from Shannonbridge, who are in a neighbouring parish – Ferbane have been a powerful force in senior football in the past few years.

Success by St Vincent's, St Broughan's (Bracknagh, Clonbullogue and Walsh Island) and Na Fianna (Ballinagar, Clodiagh Gaels and Raheen) has been a great thing for the Offaly underage football scene. St Manchan's (Ballycumber, Doon, Erin Rovers and Tubber) have also been very competitive and it is great to see such good work going on in all those areas but as long as their adult clubs remain separate, it is never going to translate into senior success.

That, however, is a whole different can of worms and Cloghan's-St Ryangh's recent success is also a great thing. It is great for the wider Cloghan area and parish, it is great for the people involved in the club and it is also a huge thing from the players from other clubs – players who would not normally kick a football in anger.

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