22 May 2022

The Man Behind the Wire: Forget about regime change, the onus is on everyone to stand up and be counted for Tailteann Cup

The Man Behind the Wire: Forget about regime change, the onus is on everyone to stand up and be counted for Tailteann Cup

Conor McNamee after the Wexford defeat.

SOME supporters have begun to call for the head of John Maughan in the wake of Sunday's very disappointing Leinster Senior Football Championship defeat by Wexford in Wexford Park.

There have been calls on social media and in other forums for a regime change but now is not the time for pressing panic buttons and making a quick managerial change ahead of the Tailteann Cup.

In fact, there is an overwhelming onus on everyone to knuckle down, both management and players, and put their very best foot forward for the Tailteann Cup.

Offaly really should give the second tier competition their very best shot, try and win it and at least bring something tangible out of what is shaping up to be a very disappointing 2022 inter-county football season. At the moment, it is difficult to see Offaly getting their interest and motivation up to a sufficient level to win the competition or even go close in it – Offaly's appetite for the qualifiers has often been very questionable and a second tier competition is very unlikely to tingle their senses.

Yet there should be a price to pay if they don't give it some sort of a go. The mood in the camp will be understandably deflated after Sunday's defeat in Wexford. It was a very poor performance against a team who floundered in mid table mediocrity in Division 4 and it really was a body blow. It deprived them of a chance to pit themselves against mighty Dublin in O'Connor Park next Saturday and getting over these type of blows is no easy task.

Offaly were going to end up in the Tailteann Cup anyway. It would have been the shock of the century if they had beaten Dublin and there was no evidence this year to suggest that Offaly can take a scalp of this magnitude. However, it would have been nice to play Leinster's dominant force, to enjoy everything a visit from them to Tullamore would entail. To pit yourself against the best and see where you are. Even if the result was a bad beating and the evidence of where you are was not to your liking, you would be infinitely better off going into the Tailteann Cup on the back of that than losing to Wexford.

A visit by Dublin would have been great for the town of Tullamore. Coming on the back of two traumatic Covid restricted year, it would have given a tremendous boost to the hospitality sector and it is a shame that they won't yield the huge dividends that would have emerged from hungry, thirty and sleepy Dublin fans visiting town.

Sunday was a very bad day for Offaly football, and there is no getting away from that. Wexford are a very limited side and they were off the pace in Division 4 of the National Football League. The result was also not a real surprise. Once word emerged in recent weeks that Offaly players were dropping like flies, it was clear that this was a real banana skin of a game. When the Offaly team was named on Friday morning, it had progressed from a banana skin to one where they were sitting ducks, waiting to be taken out by a pot shot.

There was an expectation that Offaly would still survive, that the players selected would still be good enough. It was, unfortunately, an expectation founded more on the belief that Wexford would be poor enough to be beaten rather than Offaly being good enough to win. Sadly, the more pessimistic forecasts were correct – Wexford played much better than their Division 4 status suggested, particularly in the second half when they built up huge momentum. They went from 1-7 to 0-6 down to leading by 1-13 to 1-7 in the space of 19 very traumatic minutes for Offaly.

It was fairly shocking, dismal stuff by Offaly in this period. They struggled to get their hands on the ball. When they did, they couldn't break the line at pace, they were too cagey on the ball and they were turned over way too often. Their discipline also deserted them as frees were brought forward for protesting decisions or interfering with a player trying to kick the ball.

Offaly actually did well to get back into the game from here. They got four points on the trot to bring it back to two points in the last five minutes. They did show character, desire and stand up to be counted at this stage but they had left themselves too much to do and Wexford were able to lift the siege and get the crucial late scores that propelled them across the finish line.

The Offaly team that started were always going to find it very hard to win this game. The one that finished couldn't win it. Offaly simply didn't have the forwards on the field to pull them back from the brink. Even when they rallied with those four points in a row, it was not based on attacking brilliance – three of those four points came from frees, two of them by goalkeeper Paddy Dunican and wing back Niall Darby which tells its own story, while the only one from play was from Bill Carroll.

There are extenuating circumstances in Offaly's defeat. They were down way too many players, particularly forwards. There is no point in using the loss of long term absentees, Eoin Rigney, Cian Farrell, Peter Cunningham and Eoin Carroll as an excuse. They have never had those four this season and knew at an early stage that they would have had to plan without them.

Their more recent injuries were devastating. It quite simply removed the pulse from the attack. Jack Bryant, one of the most promising emerging forwards in Offaly, has been out for nearly eight weeks with a hamstring injury while their most talented forward, Niall McNamee and his inform first cousin, Ruari McNamee had picked up hamstring injuries in the past two weeks.

The two McNamee's certainly would have started - Bryant would have been there or there abouts anyway and would have been definitely in once they were ruled out. There were others. Cathal Donoghue may not have started but would have been very close – and he was ruled out with a knee injury that could turn out to be a cruciate, though a scan will determine this and nothing can be presumed yet.

Offaly's prospects were further damaged when two of their U-20s, Keith O'Neill and John Furlong were unable to feature. Offalty's defeat by Kildare in the Leinster U-20 Football Championship on Thursday meant that U-20s were available and O'Neill, Furlong and Lee Pearson had been added to the panel. As things turned out only Pearson could play – and he contributed very well, tearing up the field and getting a crucial goal early in the second half. Unfortunately, O'Neill and Furlong couldn't play – O'Neill pulled a calf muscle late on against Kildare while Furlong's groin injury flared up in the warm up on sudden.

Of course, Offaly shouldn't be relying on young players to extract them from the muck but they would have made a difference on Sunday and they would both have been used. O'Neill has blistering pace with an eye for goal and Furlong is arguably the best prospect to emerge in Offaly in the current generation – he is not a forward but he would not have been going backwards or sidewards once he got on the ball. He would have injected pace and drive into the team at a stage when those attributes were not fully in evidence.

And don't forget Cormac Egan. The Tullamore flier has work to do to make the step up to senior level but he is getting an operation on his troublesome hamstring. Forget about Offaly, everyone is hoping that Egan will just get fit enough to be able to play and enjoy football but he would have been an asset on Sunday – players with the pace of him and O'Neill could have made all the difference. The presence of Niall McNamee would almost certainly have got Offaly across the line and the players and team management on Sunday deserve to have all the above facts presented.

It is easy for people to shout about excuses being made and that Offaly should still have won. If you take four or five forwards off any team in the country, they won't fulfil their potential – a Kerry would beat Wexford without David Clifford et-al, but they may not beat Cork and would be sitting ducks for the likes of Galway, Mayo, Donegal etc.

Offaly finished the game with just one recognised forward on the field, Anton Sullivan. Johnny Moloney had been pressed into an attacking role after the injury crisis hit home and only him and Sullivan saw out the full game. Bill Carroll had started at midfield where he partnered Jordan Hayes – Dylan Hyland, Mark Abbott, Bernard Allen and Cathal Flynn were all replaced by defenders, Carl Stewart, Joseph O'Connor, Cian Donoghue and Conor McNamee.

It simply couldn't be done and that is all without talking about a defence that had their own fragilities exposed by Wexford.

It is just not the time for witch hunts or seeking managerial changes. There are too many extenuating circumstances and fairness must come into the equation. In a way, it is questionable to be even addressing this subject – things can gather legs on social media where a couple of people throw out loose comments, others pile in and suddenly something appears to have support and momentum when the truth is otherwise: the vocal minority, and in most cases a very small minority, should never have more influence than the silent majority. At the same time, most .opinions are valid and there is discontent out there, at least on some level

The reality is that John Maughan's reign is likely to end after the Tailteann Cup anyway. He will call it a day himself and at that stage, it will be the right thing to do. The vastly experienced Mayo man has been a steadying influence on Offaly. Again, people will contest this assertion but he came into the job after a traumatic year where Stephen Wallace had been replaced after a chanmpionship malfunction against Wicklow. The previous few years had seen very limited progress being made and Maughan did steady things. He was solid, he raised the bar for players and he developed a genuine passion for Offaly.

He has been by no means flawless. Offaly got promoted from Division 3 last year by default as a restricted league played into their hands but they went straight back down this year. They certainly got things wrong for the first game against Clare this year – that was a game that Offaly needed to win if they were to stay up. They probably would have won it later in the campaign but they were not right that day in Ennis and at least some of the responsibility for that is with management.

You can complain about tactics, playing defensively or not injecting pace into their games. It is up to a manager to dictate the way a team plays but sometimes players go defensive, ultra cautious of their own accord in the white heat of battle. It happened with Offaly U-20s last Thursday evening when every player on the field drifted back into defence after Offaly got into a winning position in the second half. No manager told them to do that, sometimes it can take a while to sort out and once the ball is thrown in, a manager only has so much control.

There is merit in the suggestion that Offaly's game plan is wrong and that they are at their best when attacking teams hard. There is also merit in the suggestion that they top counties will open up a team going into all out attack.

There have been sufficient rumours of discontent in the Offaly camp in recent weeks to suggest that there is no smoke without fire. Again, it is unwise to read too much into such stories and they certainly shouldn't be used as a brush to beat a manager with unless players go public with their complaints. Rumours flying about and stuff being talked about is grand but without hard facts or at least opinions being expressed by people that know, they can't be given weight.

It has been a bad week for Offaly football. The U-20s lost their All-Ireland and Leinster titles while the minors suffered a bad defeat by Longford – only the minors remain in the championship and it is impossible to get excited about their prospects at the moment.

Change is needed in the Offaly team. The 2021 U-20s will naturally emerge and others will naturally slip away. The same will happen team management – once Maughan calls it a day, there will be speculation about his successor with team coach, Tomas O'Se and U-20 manager Declan Kelly the early front runners.

At the moment, team management should be allowed to see out their term with dignity. There is an opportunity for management to shake things up and start introducing younger players. The Tailteann Cup is an ideal place for this – it won't matter much if Offaly don't win it but it can really develop players and get them going. It is also a chance to give action to some of the more fringe players who haven't kicked a ball in a competitive game this year and hopefully, they will take chances on some players.

Decisions and hard talking can be done after the Tailteann Cup. Players must also stand up to be counted – they are playing for their county not any manager and if players withdraw now or their effort levels are less than what they should be, then that should be noted by any future manager.

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