17 May 2022

THE MAN BEHIND THE WIRE: More than one side to the story in development squad controversy as Offaly GAA tries to raise the bar

The man behind the wire: More than one side to the story in development squad controversy as Offaly GAA tries to raise the bar

The Offaly U-14 development squad

IN 1989, then Offaly GAA chairman Brendan Ward refuted stories that members of the Offaly senior football team had attended a disco and drank alcohol on the evening before a National Football League defeat by Antrim. A report in a national Sunday newspaper had alleged two selectors had to visit the disco in the early hours of the morning to get a couple of players to go to bed. Ward told a local newspaper at the time that he didn't “hold by the stuff” reported and did not believe that Offaly were beaten “over excessive drinking”.

In 1993, then County Board secretary Christy Todd hit out at the commitment of some Offaly senior footballers in his report to the annual Convention. He stated that a “lack of commitment to training by some players, late defections and strange team placings” impacted on Offaly's championship defeat against Kildare, after earlier wins over Longford and Carlow. He described their first half display as one of the poorest ever by an Offaly team, with a fine second half rally coming too late. Interestingly, the long serving Ballycommon official also stated that the commitment to training by some of the senior hurling panel before their defeat by Kilkenny was not of the “required level” - a year later Offaly won their third All-Ireland senior hurling title.

In 1994, the performances of the Offaly senior football team came under a heavy attack at a meeting of the Offaly GAA County Board. In the 1993-1994 National Football League Division 3 campaign, Offaly were relegated back to Division 4 after a campaign that saw them draw with Tyrone, Monaghan and Tipperary and lose to Armagh, Cavan, Wexford and Antrim – once again Antrim provided the low point in a positively shocking 1-8 to 0-2 defeat in the last game. Offaly rallied briefly in the championship with a replayed win over Wicklow but were then evicted by Wexford.

Luckily enough, the above mentioned attack came before the Antrim game but it showed where Offaly football was at the time. Amid calls for a special County Board meeting to be called with team manager Pat Fitzgerald to discuss the team's displays, Brendan Ward talked about players “not interested” in joining the panel. “For the first time ever we have good players in the county who have refused to wear the Offaly jersey because I have visited some of them personally,” he said. Former county secretary Br Sylvester Carney described a couple of their displays as being like a “novelty act” while other delegates were damning in their criticism of commitment levels, structures and walkovers being given at club level.

It was a very bleak period for Offaly football and Conventions and County Board meetings in the late 1980s and early 1990s routinely dealt with questions and debates about the county senior football squad. Whether any player drank the night before a league match – and it is important to remember that it was a very different era from now and such occurences would not have been unheard of in the previous decades – or the reasons why players excused themselves from the panel do not matter in the least now.

It was, however, where Offaly football was at the time and it was a very bitter pill for all in the county to swallow with memories of the 1982 All-Ireland senior football final win still powerfully fresh. Offaly's fall from grace post 1982 was abrupt and shocking to win – as they went from being All-Ireland champions to a Division 4 side almost in the blink of an eye.

Now, a promising new future is emerging for the county, fuelled by the excellence and flair of the Offaly side that won the All-Ireland U-20 Football Championship in 2021, the work being done in county underage development squads, clubs in all areas and the commitment of the current senior football squad to the cause.

In 1994 as Offaly went back to Division 4, Declan Kelly was an impressionable young man, emerging from his teens. He played minor and U-21 football for Offaly and in 1995, he played for St Joseph's, a parish team of Ballycommon, Cappincur and Kilclonfert players in the Senior Football Championship – he would not have known anything about the 1989 events and may or may not have been fully conscious of what was happening Offaly football from 1990 up to 1996. He also saw Offaly emerge from the doldrums in 1997 and 1998 as they won the Leinster Senior Football Championship and National Football League. He was the sub goalkeeper himself for a while in the first half of the 2000s, making his only two appearances in a league defeat by Galway in 2000 and a win over London in 2003, keeping a clean sheet on both occasions.

He witnessed Offaly football enjoy a brief renaissance in the first half of the 2000s, reaching a Leinster final in 2006 where they lost to Dublin. Managerial unheaval also soured those and the next few years as Offaly football returned to Division 4, swaying between division 4 and 3 for the most part since then until getting to Division 2 this year – unfortunately dropping back to Division 3 this year.

Gaelic football has changed beyond all recognition since the 1990s. People who passed away then simply would not recognise the modern game, the way it is played, the defensive tactics of teams, the retain possession at all costs mantra. Nor would they recognise the fitness and conditioning of teams which has entered a different orbit – as Dublin, Mayo, Kerry and the northern powerhouses of Tyrone and Donegal brought things to a different level, Offaly found itself left a country mile behind, firmly rooted in football's third, if not fourth tier – the foundation of the great decline were built soon after 1982 as that great team broke up quicker than expected and it continued into the 1990s, getting a second airing in the 2000s and again in the 2010s.

The environment in Offaly is different than any of those counties. Dublin has a population and resources that no one else can dream about and the other counties are effectively one sport ones whereas Offaly is very much a dual county, and a much smaller one at that. In terms of resources and ability to raise finance, Offaly are on a different platform than those though the election of Michael Duignan as County Board chairman, golf superstar Shane Lowry coming on as a major backer and Glenisk taking over as main sponsors has moved the goalposts significantly. Offaly still can't match the resources of big counties but the playing field has levelled up a small bit.

Even with that, however, Offaly are very much playing catch up on the giants of football. In physical fitness and overall conditioning, they remain way behind the All-Ireland contenders – notwithstanding the huge efforts being made by the current senior football squad and management.

For players at the top, elite level, it is a long process to get to this level, starting from the earliest ages and continuing throughout their playing career – the GAA may be amateur but at the top level, its players prepare like professionals. That is what the teams challenging for All-Ireland honours are doing and that is what Offaly is aiming at.

Declan Kelly is at the vanguard of this. No one expected Offaly to win the All-Ireland U-20 football title last year, those players had done little to signpost it at minor or underage level yet thjey won it, playing with a flair, pace and intensity that captured the imagination of football lovers all over the country. Most Offaly people took it as a given that they wouldn't see an All-Ireland title coming to the county again, now the future is bright with hope and possibilities once again.

The All-Ireland win was down to the players – their fitness levels, the quality of their game and the obvious delight they get from playing football. It could not, however, have happened without Declan Kelly. Since taking over as Offaly U-20 football manager four years ago, he has begun to instill a new attitude in players. Every step of the way, he has made hard calls, told harsh truths, dispensed with players who he felt were not doing what it takes. Very good players did not play under his watch but it is a measure of his judgement that only one of those has since made the step up to the county senior football squad and settled in well here – some are scarcely playing club football now.

Last week, Kelly found himself in the eye of a storm as a furore broke over a decision to drop four players from a county U-14 development squad after missing a training session. The Kilclonfert man is one of the busiest football people in Offaly – in addition to managing Offaly U-20 footballers, he is also the county's Director of Football, over that U-14 squad and he is the manager of St Loman's senior footballers in Westmeath, though their season has not begun yet.

He and Offaly GAA in general has received a torrent of abuse on social media forums, anonymous texts, energy sapping phone calls and emails since the decision went public and then viral. Other people at the fulcrum of the U-14 management, the County Board and its coaching and games development committee have also been targeted. Emails were sent questioning the rights of other players to be on squads and it really did spiral out of control. Things are certainly gone very bad when people have to turn off the comments section on accounts. Players being dropped has happened as long as there are competitive games, for all age grades and in all sporting codes – it is part of life and responding positively in the face of such adversity has been the makings of many a great player.

Pushing the rights and wrongs of the decision to one side for the moment, it has been ugly, over the top and out of balance. Social media can be a downright nasty place at times and it gives people a platform with a limited, if any, grasp of the facts and why something happened – there were also very well meaning people who expressed their opposition to what happened and who have an understanding of the background but they did not descend into the realms of personal abuse.

The basic facts have done the rounds in the past week plus but are: four young players, three from Rhode and one from Edenderry, were dropped from the county U-14 football development squad for missing a training session. It turned out that they missed the training session for playing an U-14 SFAI National Cup quarter-final for Edenderry Town against Shamrocks Rovers and this has led to a plethora of sensationalised headlines and comments that they had been dropped for playing soccer and that the “ban” was being restored to Offaly GAA. The truth is the players were dropped for missing training and the outcome would have been the same if they had played for the Leinster rugby team, sang in a national competition, played in an international chess final or simply not bothered turning up – there is of course legitimate reasons for missing training: illness, bereavement, family trauma etc but playing another game is not one of them.

The reality is the players were not dropped for playing soccer and no ban rules apply to the county development squads. In fact, a several players in county development squads at all age levels and in football and hurling are playing other sports, soccer, rugby, basketball etc. No one has told them not to play those and that won't happen but they are expected to put the county development squad first and give first commitment to this. These were not the first players to be dropped from county development squads this year, it happens in every county and it will happen again.

You can debate the rights or wrongs of applying such a high standard to players who are 13-14 years of age. There is plenty of merit in the arguments presented by some of those who have been disgusted by the treatment – that it is too hard on young children who should be given an opportunity to play all sports before making a choice. That they are young children finding their way in a difficult, scary part of life as they travel towards adulthood, begin the process of branching out and separating from their parents, forming their own individual identities, growing into themselves. It brings up the six marker of when should young people be introduced to competitive sport and exposed to the realities that it can be tough, unforgiving – players can be dropped, told they are not good enough, called out over commitment etc.

There is merit in the suggestion that the soccer game in question was a huge national one and that allowances should have been made. There is, however, two sides to every story and unfortunately only one of these has got an airing in the past week – the County Board did back their personnel with a concise, honest and straightforward statement but how many really read that and took it on board?

As always, we do need to add a caveat to what seems a universal sense of outrage. How big is the adverse reaction really? For everyone who made a comment or shared an article about it, how many kept their powder dry and said nothing? The overwhelming majority but for obvious reasons, people wouldn't get dragged into something of this nature and put themselves out on an island.

Just as there is merit in the views of the people who are annoyed by the decision, the stance taken by the management and others is also worthy of respect. It was never taken with ill intent, designed to destroy the “mental health” of young people, as they have been accused of, or to put the boot into other sports. Their only focus is on their own sport and trying to get young people to reach their full potential in that game.

By all means debate the methods of achieving this but there is absolutely nothing wrong with doing what you think is right to develop your own game and help its players reach their potential. In fact, those twin aims are very admirable, no matter what your chosen sport – soccer, rugby, basketball etc are all great sports that provide a great outlet and entertainment for their players, officials and supporters.

Offaly GAA are trying desperately to return to the top level in football and hurling from an early age. As Director of Football Declan Kelly is merely enforcing the rules and guidelines handed to him by the County Board. They are aware that the level of conditioning the top counties have achieved begins at a young age and Offaly are trying to match this but they are not over loading these players. The reality is the Offaly development squads train once a week from January through to June, generally on a Saturday – they are expected to train with their club on other days and indeed, if any of these elite players miss a club session, the club is obliged to inform county management of their absence and reasons.

It is a twofold agenda – giving the best players the opportunity to develop fully individually but safe guarding and enhancing clubs. For the elite players, other codes simply can't come into consideration and it is not reasonable to expect that – again, you can argue about young children under 14 years of age trying everything and there is a very human element to this. No one likes seeing children at 12 to 14 years of age exposed to disappointment, trauma and tears, particularly over sport. Yet there is another side – they are not far away from being county minors, a blink of an eye really and the work they do in those years will have a big impact on their sporting careers. The really top performers from world famous professionals down to the superstar amateurs begin at a very young age and it really is the volume of practice and work that separates them from others.

The Offaly development squads operate out of a small window – allowances could have been made for the above mentioned soccer game but then they could be playing a semi-final and final the following two Saturday's. Someone else is missing because of a basketball game, a handful of others are playing rugby. There are always reasons. And the whole time, Offaly GAA are moving further away from achieving their objectives – the ground work laid now, the hard yards, the small steps are what yields dividends in years to come.

This is not a one way street and soccer and rugby players in particular have often been told or advised not to play football and hurling once they have reached a certain level. It has happened several players in Offaly and most clubs can relate those stories. Some players from Offaly have gone onto achieve a high level in rugby in particular. Soccer seems to be harder to break through in as most who have devoted to that have not made it.

Some of these have come back to the GAA – Jack Bryant was an outstanding young soccer player but in his late teens, he opted for GAA and he was the star player as Offaly won the U-20 football title last year. Another of their star players, Cormac Egan was a brilliant athlete in his younger years with vast potential but he opted for football and hurling at a young age and has yielded the dividends of this decision.

Others never regained their earlier potential after concentrating on other codes in those formative years and have settled into life as decent to ordinary club players who won't be pulling on a senior county jersey.

There is no reason why some of the dropped U-14 players won't make it. Indeed, it will be a surprise if at least one of them don't – already there is a buzz emerging about the talent of one of them and a couple of them have outstanding footballing DNA coursing through their veins.

The door will be opened to the young U-14s again and they will have the opportunity to be part of county development squads in the coming years – there is a strong case for giving them a chance this year, for giving them a break but on the clear understanding that missing training for other games is not an acceptable excuse. After all, the vast majority of players on these squads have football or hurling as their only sporting priority and why should players who prioritise other sports be chosen ahead of ones who don't?

People make choices at every stage of their sporting lives. Many go for GAA and the games have a special hold in Offaly but many more opt for other sports. Colm Gath is a talented hurler from Drumcullen who played senior for Offaly last year. He is also a lightening fast sprinter and is giving that a go this year. He has joined Tullamore Harriers where coaches have been amazed and excited at his speed, power and potential. He won a 60m silver medal at the Leinster Senior Indoor Championships recently and if he doesn't come back to hurling, his loss to county will be significant and devastating to his club. If he truly wants to give sprinting a go, he will probably find that this and hurling don't mix and his choice will be respected. People have the right to choose and should enjoy what ever sport they want but sometimes, this involves difficult decisions.

Down the years, players always had to make a choice at some stage if they truly wanted to excel at one sport. This always involved discarding other sports. Shane Lowry is the perfect example of this. He comes from one of Offaly's great footballing dynasties but at a young age, he choose golf over football and we have all seen where that led him – had he tried to excel in football and golf, it is very doubtful if he would have been finishing third in the US Masters last Sunday.

Now the day of making that decision is coming earlier : the GAA is heading towards an all year around calendar at club underage level – this is opening a different can of worms in terms of the strain on club mentors and people at the coalface but that is a story for another day. There have been moves by soccer to have a summer season in direct competition with the GAA.

Here is the final point. Young people have always chosen soccer, rugby, athletics, other sports over the GAA. People involved in those sports, over teams, have told players not to play GAA games as they had a big game coming up or the players was developing towards elite level. It is a reality of life but when has there ever been a sense of outrage, national attention, outrageous/abusive comments made, people having their good name taken over a player told not to play a football or hurling game? It doesn't happen and nor does the GAA seek that sense of righteousness. It shouldn't happen when the shoe is on the other foot and irrespective of the merit or otherwise of the complaints by these excellent, very talented young sportsmen, their parents and friends, things like this will happen at every stage of a sporting career and it was blown out of all proportion and balance in the past week.

And just as it would be a tragedy to lose any young player over something that probably won't matter that much in the long term, it would also be an absolute tragedy to drive away and abuse good people who are simply driven, passionate football men who want Offaly and players to reach their full potential, to be the best they can be.

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