01 Jul 2022

Offaly aim to take out neighbours in mouth watering Tailteann Cup derby shootout

Offaly aim to take out neighbours in mouth watering Tailteann Cup derby shootout

Rory Egan will enjoy getting back into Croke Park.

THE Tailteann Cup should receive a big shot in the arm when Offaly and Westmeath cross swords in a tantalising local derby shootout in Croke Park on Sunday next in the semi-final.

Already the second tier football championship competition is proving to be a bigger success than many had hoped for and the clash between Offaly and Westmeath will certainly heighten interest in it in both counties.

Expect it to be contested in true championship fervour and both counties would love to reach the final against the winners of Cavan and Sligo.

The semi-finals form part of a Croke Park double bill with the Offaly v Westmeath game the main event at 4.00pm. They will be televised live on RTE and this will further raise the profile of the competition.

The decision to play them in Croke Park has been questioned by many. It is true that the crowd at these games will be lost at headquarters – Offaly and Westmeath won't have much interest in the Sligo v Cavan game and vice versa. Essentially, there will be different people in for both games and the crowd will not create a real atmosphere – there would be a huge atmosphere at the Offaly and Westmeath game if it was played in Tullamore, Mullingar or some other provincial venue.

Yet there is logic to playing them in Croke Park. The GAA are trying to give the Tailteann Cup as big a profile as possible and its aim is to develop the counties and players that play in it. Playing in Croke Park, even in front of a small crowd, is an important element of this and it is a great experience for the players.

There was a time when Croke Park was a home from home for Offaly teams. That is no longer the case and appearances by Offaly players are rare there.

The Tailteann Cup is proving to be a good competition. Unlike its predecessor, the Tommy Murphy Cup, it is being treated seriously and with respect by most of the counties in it. The Tommy Murphy Cup, named for a famous Laois footballer, was in operation from 2004 to 2008. It was for teams eliminated in the early rounds of the All-Ireland qualifiers and it was treated with contempt by many of the competitors, including Offaly – Offaly only competed in it in 2007 and gave a dire performance as they lost to eventual champions Wicklow in Aughrim.

Amazingly, Offaly had been in the Leinster Final just a year earlier, losing to Dublin but competing well for much of the game, and the GAA sounded the death knell for the competition at the end of 2008.

As the gap widened between the top tier and lower tier counties in recent years, the moves towards a new second tier competition gained traction and the Tailteann Cup emerged from this.

The format has been better, the interest much higher. Part of this is that the competing teams didn't go into the qualifiers originally. Any team from Division 3 and 4 next year who didn't reach their provincial final went into it and they have displayed a great appetite for prolonging their season.

Offaly didn't want to be in the Tailteann Cup, they wanted to go into the qualifiers. They fought tooth and tail to retain their status in Division 2 of the National Football League this year, only going down with a narrow defeat to Cork on the last day. A win would have kept Offaly up and they would have went into the qualifiers then.

It was a pity that they were relegated from Division 2. With an exciting array of talent from the 2021 All-Ireland U-20 football champions coming on stream, the higher grade would have served them well.

With Dublin in the same side of the draw, Offaly were never going to reach the Leinster senior football final and the Tailteann Cup was always going to be their destination once they were relegated. As it was, they went in there earlier than they expected, suffering a demoralising defeat to Wexford in the first round – Offaly were missing a lot of key players that day and were vulnerable but the performance and defeat were still very disappointing.

It gave rise to doubts about the interest Offaly would display in the Tailteann Cup. Their previous history suggested they would show scant regard for it. Offaly had been very slow to embrace the qualifiers when they first came in during the early 2000s and some of their early displays were way off the mark.

Thankfully, however, they have attacked the Tailteann Cup with real enthusiasm. There are a number of factors in this. Their pride was hurt by the Wexford defeat and they had a point to prove. By the time the Tailteann Cup came about, many of the injured players were back and hungry for action.

It is also likely to be John Maughan's last season as manager. The Mayo man is unlikely to come back for a fifth season, even if Offaly win the Tailteann Cup and he is determined to bow out on a high, to leave the county with something tangible to show for his work.

It could also be the final season for some of Offaly's longest serving players. Niall McNamee can't go on forever and while he continues to astound with some outstanding football, he is very much in his end game as a county player. Johnny Moloney is young enough to give it another couple of years but the influential Tullamore man is living in Galway and is now the father of a young child. He will find it difficult to commit to Offaly with his new life. Niall Darby is another in the veteran stages of his career and his injury this week will be a huge blow for Offaly 

From the start, it was clear that Offaly were up for the competition. They lived very dangerously in their first round renewal against Wexford and could have lost very easily but they dug out the result. They have improved with every game since then. They played well against a surprisingly poor Wicklow side and upped it again in the quarter-final against New York. The American visitors had very obvious limitations and the performance comes with a warning sign attached but they still played very good attacking football on the day.

It sets the scene for Sunday's semi-final. Westmeath will be slight favourites. They have good forwards and a deadly marksman in John Heslin. He is one man Offaly will have to get to grips with but Westmeath will be saying the same about Niall McNamee.

It is close to a 50/50 game and there shouldn't be any more than a few points in it. Offaly will fancy their chances. They will be playing to a plan but supporters will be looking for them to attack their opponents and to allow players to show their natural flair – not to be too cautious or defensive.

Offaly should be selecting from a full strength squad, outside of their long term injuries. Oisin Keenan-Martin is the latest U-20 star to pick up an injury, suffering the dreaded cruciate while Bernard Allen has pulled out of the panel after not featuring in the three Tailteann Cup games to date.

There is unlikely to be changes from the team that beat New York and Offaly have a very good chance. Their confidence is increasing the whole time the games are serving Offaly very well. This is their fourth and a fifth in the final will be very welcome. Offaly have the potential to achieve it.

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