26 May 2022

THE MAN BEHIND THE WIRE: Green shoots for Offaly hurling augurs well for the future

THE MAN BEHIND THE WIRE: Green shoots for Offaly hurling

Leigh Kavanagh gets forward for Offaly minor hurlers against Dublin.

ONE swallow will never make a summer and there are plenty of pitfalls on the road ahead but Offaly's performance in beating Dublin in the Leinster Minor Hurling Championship semi-final last Saturday was certainly heartwarming.

Offaly played really well in a 3-18 to 1-15 win and it was a display that augurs well for the future. It was the best performance by an Offaly minor hurling team in recent memory and it was great to see a county team producing hurling of that intensity and quality.

Time will tell how good this team and players are. The Leinster final against Laois will reveal a lot and there will be pressure on Offaly here as expectancy levels have now risen – Laois have beaten Wexford and Kilkenny and command the absolute utmost of respect but there will be disappointment if Offaly don't win a fifth Leinster minor hurling title on Monday next.

The All-Ireland series will tell more again. The Leinster final will be a right ding dong battle between two sides who look to be evenly matched. It pits two counties who are doing a lot of work at underage level against each other and it will be a surprise if the game doesn't go down to the wire.

With a back door for the losers, both counties will compete in the All-Ireland series, irrespective of the result. Winning a Leinster title would be a huge achievement for either Offaly or Laois, potentially a game changing one for the winners. It will provide proof that they are on the right road, it will bring on the winning players a tonne, it will give hope to the players older than them and it will provide inspiration for the younger players behind them. The potential spin offs for Offaly are immense.

However, it is the All-Ireland series that will really show how good the teams are. The performances against Galway and Munster opposition will tell a lot more, they will show where they really are.

It certainly looks encouraging for Offaly at the moment. While Offaly did very well to reach the Leinster minor hurling final in 2020, they did so with wins over Laois, Kildare and Westmeath and were then well beaten by Kilkenny in the final. That final was played in 2021 and it did represent an important step forward for Offaly – Offaly minor teams have lost to Laois, Kildare and Westmeath in the past decade and comprehensive wins over those oppositions provided definite signs of improvement.

There were very good players on that team. Lochlann Quinn looks to be a scoring machine in the mould of his first cousin, Eoghan Cahill while another forward Charlie Mitchell is an exciting prospect. Mark Troy has the potential to follow in the footsteps of his famous father Jim by being an Offaly senior goalkeeper.

That team did very well but the performances of the current team are at a different level again. There has been plenty of talk about their prospects for some time and they have shown that this optimism was well founded.

That squad were used to beating Dublin on their way up through the system and their win was not a surprise but they still had to perform very well to do so. The win was fashioned on a fine level of skill coupled with a ferocious work ethic and these have been the atttibutes of all successful Offaly teams.

It provides further evidence of Offaly GAA turning a corner. Clear evidence has emerged in football in recent years with Offaly winning the All-Ireland U-20 Football Championship last year while they were very close to beating Meath in the 2020 Leinster minor football final – they were not far off the mark in U-20 this year and have reached the Leinster minor football semi-final with run away wins over Carlow and Laois.

Offaly have three dual players on both teams: St Rynagh's Shane Rigney, Tullamore's Niall Furlong and Tubber's Donal Shirley. It is a delicate balancing act for the players and managements but those young men have performed at a high level in both codes and neither would be as good as they are without them. And there could be more – minor hurling star, Adam Screeney is also a wonderfully skilful footballer who could make that team while Cillian Martin's physicality and work rate would also bring much to the table for Ken Furlong's charges.

The dual player is an endangered species in the GAA. They occupy a cherished place in Offaly GAA history with Liam Currums winning All-Ireland senior hurling and football medals in 1981 and 1982 and there have been dual players on most successful Offaly underage sides.

As you advance into adulthood, it is almost impossible to play both codes at the highest level. Team managers simply won't facilitate it and apart from that, the fixtures schedule won't allow it. It will become harder for these young players at U-20 level where the possibility of a manager telling them to choose one or the other will become bigger. That may happen at U-20 and it will definitely occur at senior level but that is all ahead of them and it is important to cherish and celebrate their excellence in both codes at the moment.

It has looked like football was edging ahead of hurling in terms of becoming more competitive at the higher level and that is why the performance of this young minor hurling team is so welcome. Hurling clubs have been slower about getting organised than the big football ones in the north and west of the county where huge work has taken place in all the parishes over several years.

The clubs in the south are now getting their act together. They are amalgamating where necessary at underage level to put out stronger teams and they are coming together to appoint shared full time Games Promotion Officers. That is the way forward, along with getting into primary and secondary schools.

Saturday's performance rekindled fond memories of a golden era for Offaly as they won Leinster and All-Ireland minor hurling titles in 1986, 1987 and 1989. Members of those great teams went onto backbone the All-Ireland senior champions of 1994 and 1998 and it was a truly special time for Offaly.

It would be very premature and unwise to compare the current squad with those teams. Many of the 1980s sides collected multiple All-Stars and became house hold names. The current team have won nothing yet and at the moment, we really don't know how good they are. However, there were times on Saturday when you could get a buzz of anticipation, a tingle of excitement as Offaly wore down Dublin and then put them to the sword.

It was a collectively excellent display but a couple of individual performances really captured attention. Everyone was talking about young Adam Screeney afterwards. The Kilcormac-Killoughey teenager was magnificent, showing great skill, pace and finishing. He has plenty of work to do yet, he has to develop physically and not every outstanding young talent from Kilcormac-Killoughey has made the progression into a top class senior county hurler but Screeney has all the attributes and he is as exciting a prospect as Offaly has seen at that age.

Another fine prospect is Dan Ravenhill. The Durrow man is physical and powerful with a great engine and supporters will be watching his progress with interest. There are plenty of others with ability, players who will make the jump forward. Full back James Mahon is another with real potential – an old fashioned type full back, there was something compelling about the way he performed on Saturday, his physicality and his ability to burst out of defence.

U-17 is young and players will fall by the wayside so keeping feet on the ground is crucial but it is great to be feeling some excitement about Offaly hurling again.

Minor hurling connection

THERE is an interesting connection between the current Offaly minor hurling squad and the one that was beaten by Kilkenny in the 1950 Leinster Minor Hurling Championship final.

Paddy Dooley, a former Coolderry and Kinnitty hurler, was on the 1950 squad and his grandson of the same name is on the current panel - Paddy Dooley of Kinnitty was a sub as Offaly had a great win over Dublin in the semi-final last Saturday.

His grandfather Paddy Dooley was an excellent hurler in the 1950s and 1960s. He won an All-Ireland Junior Hurling Championship medal with Offaly in 1953 and club Senior Hurling Championship medals with Coolderry in 1953 and 1956 – he later switched to Kinnitty and won a senior hurling medal with them in 1969.

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