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10 Aug 2022

Offaly hurling legend salutes budding stars

“These are the best bunch of lads I have been involved in and I am including my own playing career and teams I have managed”

Offaly hurling legend salutes budding stars

Johnny Pilkington

ONE of the most emotive, inspiring and heart rending memories of 2022 was the celebrations of the Offaly team as they won the Leinster Minor Hurling Championship final.

On a magical, never to be forgotten day in Portlaoise, Offaly had performed brilliantly to wrestle all life and resistance out of Laois in Portlaoise's O'Moore Park. The celebrations were special and it was one of those rare days that have to be experienced to be believed.

On the way over to Portlaoise, you knew something extraordinary was in the air as cars went bumper to bumper the whole way, mixed in with bus loads of excited school children. Almost 20,000 people attended in Portlaoise, an almost unheard of figure for a provincial minor final and it showed the hunger for success that existed in Offaly and Laois.

Once they escaped the bedlam of the pitch and got back to the dressing room sanctuary after a great win, the Offaly squad, management and County Board officials engaged in an impromptu airing of that great anthem, the Offaly Rover. As players linked arms on the benches, County Board chairman Michael Duignan, a hero in the 1990s, fist pumped the air, and the Rover was sang with great enthusiasm, one of the enduring images was of Johnny Pilkington in the corner of the dressing room.

Occupying a quiet corner but gently humming the words, swaying slightly to the music, it was a sight to touch on the heart strings of every Offaly GAA supporter. Johnny Pilkington is synonymous with Offaly hurling. He was one of their greatest performers during the 1990s as Offaly won All-Ireland senior hurling titles in 1994 and 1998, the National Hurling League in 1991 and Leinster medals in 1990, 1994 and 1995. A superb, mercurial midfielder, he was one of the beating pulses of that great team. An All-Star in 1990, he was a colourful, outspoken character, instrumental in Babs Keating's replacement as manager during 1998 as Galway's Michael Bond came in and led them to one of hurling's most famous All-Ireland titles.

A real character with a wit that endeared him to all, he was also a very serious hurler and this is shown by his consistency and his longevity. The biggest tribute that can be paid to Johnny Pilkington is that he nearly always performed when he had an Offaly jersey on his back.

It has really started for Johnny P when he was a key figure on the Offaly team that won their second All-Ireland Minor Hurling Championship title in 1987. Now a whopping 35 years down the road, he finds himself as an Offaly selector who are once again facing Tipperary in an All-Ireland minor hurling final.

The circumstances are very different. Back in 1987, Offaly hurling was at its zenith. A fantastic bunch of underage hurlers had emerged in the slipstream of All-Ireland senior successes in 1981 and 1985 and they won the All-Ireland minor titles in 1986, 1987 and 1989. '87 was Pilkington's year and that golden generation fulfilled their own potential with All-Ireland senior wins in '94 and '98.

Since then, Pilkington has been around the clock. He was magnificent as Birr won unprecedented riches in the 1990s and 2000s before the wheels came off as Pilkington et-al declined and departed the scene. He has managed various club teams, Birr, Kilcormac-Killoughey, sides in Galway.

And he had been content to take a back seat from management, to relax and enjoy life as he progresses through the fifties but that changed when Offaly hurling came calling to his door again last year.

Initially Pat Guinan had asked him to come in and help out with last year's U-16s, which is this year's minor squad. “I have to say I was a bit fed up with the training side of things and I said listen Pat I will give you a hand.”

After this, minor hurling manager Leo O'Connor approached him and asked him to come on board with him as the management set up was freshened up and changed for 2022 – Pilkington, Hughie Hannon and Martin Cashen came in as a new set of selectors.

He asked for a few days to think about it and was glad that it was over a week before Leo rang him back. “It gave me a lot of time to think. I could have made a rash decision and said no. I could have made too much of it but it gave me time to think and I said right, I'll go in and give it a shot. It will only be until June or July anyway, only six months so it was grand.”

He could have went with club teams though he admitted with typical honesty that his services are no longer highly sought after. “There was nothing really, I am not in that much demand really over the last couple of years. An odd club here and there but nothing major.”

He had been involved with Birr underage sides for the past few years and was in the process of drifting away from that, “to get a break from it”.

While the prospects of this Offaly team have been spoken about for some time, mainly because they reached the Tony Forristal U-14 final a few years ago where they lost to Tipperary, the Birr hero didn't know what to expect. “I wouldn't really know the lads. I said that to Leo. Pat Guinan and a few lads had told me they were good but I took that with a grain of salt because I didn't know them, You have to see yourself. In that way, it was grand, I had no bias. I wasn't going to be able to say to a lad, listen he is great but he has a problem. I wasn't coming in with a biased frame of mind and I hadn't really seen them playing at club level or anything. A complete blank canvass for me.”

He spoke about his own role with the team, smiling when it was suggested that he was not the kind of fellow to lie over a fence looking at the team training. “Ah I do a bit of that all right. Hughie takes the drills and you are looking at them. You might go in and say the drill isn't good enough or is not up to the required standard. After that, it is just my opinion really that is coming into play. We have the strength and conditioning lad, you have the hurling coach and then the boys go into a match and we pick teams. It is kind of a traditional selector role as such. There wouldn't be anything specific I would be doing as such.”

He was asked about the importance of this Offaly team to the future. Is it a team that could change everything for Offaly hurling or is that too strong to say?

“It is. There is definitely four or five of these lads who if they stay at it, they have the requirement of that hunger and work rate and all that to bring Offaly up. We have lacked that work rate over the last ten years. We have loads of skill and hurling over the last twenty years but it hasn't been good enough. Whether it was a physicality issue or the fact that we didn't close down people at that level or closing down good enough and quick enough but these lads seem to have that, at this level. Again, these boys are going to U-20 next year and it is another step up for everyone in terms of physicality.

“You can't say it is going to be a turning curve but all I can say is there are going to be five or six of these, maybe 10-15 of them with the right attitude and that is the key.”

He agreed that one team alone won't change Offaly hurling. “It's not but what I expect out of these lads is they are driven themselves. I am only after coming in for six months, Hughie had them at U-14 level and Leo would have known them for last couple of years but I was totally surprised at the way they train. Someone instilled it into them. When you have Dan Ravenhill who leads it all and you have Conor Doyle and each and everyone of them all the way down. A simple thing like hitting the ball twenty or thirty yards, this is done at pace and it is controlled by the whole lot of them. It just totally amazed me.

“When I first came in, I wasn't expecting anything. I would just see how it goes but I have to say that every training session is just a joy to watch them at the level they train at. As far as I am concerned, and I have said it on several occasions, these are the best bunch of lads I have been involved in and I am including my own playing career and teams I have managed. They are a very special bunch and I think they have this level of training, wherever they got it and whether it is just an individual thing or comes from development squads or wherever. They will go to the U-20s and I would like them to be able to turn around to the 19-20 years olds and say, this isn't good enough, this is the way we train and then that brings it on.”

His memories of the 1987 minor final are very few. He remembers very little of the game itself, apart from a sub coming on in the second half, swiping behind him and he anticipating a haymaker. “And lo and behold, the ball fell between my legs and he just let fly, he took me out of it.”

The build up and celebrations have gone with the passage of time, though he retains a lasting memory of Tipp centre half back that day Conal Bonnar watching the following senior final and muttering the old way through “I can't believe ye beat us, I can't believe ye beat us.” In true Pilkington style, he eventually responded: “Listen ye just weren't good enough, get over it”.

It was to be a regular theme between the duo over the years. They met again at UCD where they were studying and it was “the same thing” while the mantra, “I can't believe ye beat us in '87” was repeated again when they ran into each other on holidays in France five years ago. “That was his thing but I never mentioned '89 of course”, he grinned.

1989 refers to the All-Ireland U-21 hurling final where Tipperary turned the tables on Offaly in a defeated regretted by many of that team for a long day afterwards. “There is all the ifs and buts and bounce of a ball but again I was fortunate to nearly relive that experience with the Leinster final (2022) in terms of the crowd in Portlaoise that day, the atmosphere, the type of game. That was relatively similar to the Leinster final and it was a marvellous experience to go through. Granted we lost in ’89 but it was still a marvellous occasion.”

How important was the minor win in 1987 to your development as a player and what happened in the 1990s?

“I don’t know. I’m trying to give these lads tips in what to do. I say did I listen to anybody either? Really most players don’t so they go out and do their own thing. You’d love to be able to tell Dan (Ravenhill) don’t be shooting from the wings all the time but if you tell him that he’s not going to get the inspirational scores. You just do your own thing and you develop yourself as a player. Listen, it’s success and this is the other side of it. A good third of them met up with Kilcormac and they’ve had loads of success but probably nobody else on the panel has had that success. The Kilcormac lads have had the success with the college as well this year and it’s a major help when you get a clap on the back and a bit of a boost as well. Maybe that's the little push there, that they will go in to the U20s next year with the chest out and not fearing anybody. That is how important it really is.”

Pilkington talked about the differences between these team and his own minor days.

“It’s a lot more scientific naturally enough. The training themselves in one way might have been primitive but they are still along the same lines. You’re still doing a warm up. We didn’t do the weights. We didn’t do the Strength and Conditioning that these lads had been doing. We didn't have the facilities there. It was more traditional with the running and that but you still done the running. You still done the short sprinting. You still done the ball control, the touch and you still had your match. After that it’s the science bit. Colin Kenny is here now with nutrition. It’s coming down to what you’re eating and everything like that. Now these lads all embrace it and nowadays any young lad, whether he be inter county or not, you see him going to the gym and you see them going up and doing all that. They like to look well. In our day that didn’t really happen at all. It’s a different landscape with gym work and conditioning and all that.”

His big fear for the final is that Offaly won't perform.

“That’s the big one really. You don’t mind losing. Well I don’t mind losing anyway but I hate performing bad. I think in a lot of situations if they play well at all it takes that sting out of it. If you play well what can you do? The gods will decide then. As happened in the ’95 All Ireland, a ball comes down off the crossbar and there’s nothing you can do about that. That’s the only fear. If that’s to be that’s to be. Hopefully it won’t affect them and they can go out and I think they have that willingness and drive to do that.”

He saw an element of a team not performing when Clare went four points up early on in the All-Ireland semi-final in Thurles.

“You are looking at it and you can see the problems. The bottom line is when the ball broke we weren’t there. There is a little bit of reasoning as to why that is but in other words it could be that Clare had those two games, even though they weren’t two great classic games against Laois and Galway, they seemed to be on their toes they seemed to be just there first to the ball. I really think that we got the break with the goal and that put us ahead. Then we settled down. It’s a bit of a worry that that can happen. If we are going to give Tipperary that kind of room, you’ll be more than four down. Chances are you will be 1-4, 1-5 down and that could be it. You mightn’t always come back.

“You try to look for everything. You try to say to them what happens if they got two goals in the first five minutes. You don’t want the head going down. I think Liam Griffin said to the Wexford lads prior to ’96, ‘Listen lads we are going to get a goal but as sure as hell, Offaly are going to come down and get a goal.’ And that’s exactly what happened. They also want to listen if a man gets sent off in the All Ireland, so there’s no panic. That’s really what it’s about.”

He agreed that the initial target is to be competitive into the second half and take it from there.

“Well this is it. Sure as hell from a management point of view, the team we will pick to start will be wrong because it always is. As long as we are right at the end of it then and we have the right team on it. It’s when Diggy (Daniel) Hand came back there and it was a fabulous performance. We were very fortunate, Cathal Robinson had done a fine job in his place both against Dublin and Laois. This is after broadening it for us. Then a few more lads came on there as well that are just pushing and that we can throw in.”

Pilkington was very definite and quick to respond when he was asked would he like to be doing what the modern player is doing now, with the science, nutrition, strength and conditioning etc.

“No. It’s like anything in our time. If you were asked to train five nights a week, you trained five nights a week. If you were asked to do the two hour sessions weights, you would do the two hour session weights. If you were asked about dieting that might have been a different kind of fish and nutrition and all that. That might be different. Martin Hanamy was asked one time about that question. He said we were asked to train three nights a week and that’s what we did.”

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