Sadness etched on their faces as Offaly minor hurlers listen to Offaly GAA chairman Michael Duignan at the homecoming in Birr
IT'S a long time since Offaly GAA fans endured as much sadness and disappointment as they did at the All-Ireland Minor Hurling Championship final in Kilkenny on Sunday last – the 1995 All-Ireland senior hurling final defeat by Clare was possibly the last time supporters were as collectively gutted after a game.
A tremendously brave Offaly team had victory snatched from their grasp in absolutely agonising, heartbreaking circumstances. They were almost across the line, clinging onto a two point lead with the four minutes of injury time just up when Tipperary struck for a winning goal after a controversially awarded free – Paddy Phelan popped the free into the air and Paddy McCormack was able to drive it to the net in a packed goalmouth.
It was a hard, cruel way to lose and it was a fate that Offaly simply did not deserve. They were the better team on the day and they played well enough to win. It was daylight robbery by Tipperary but that is the very essence of sport – teams don't always win games that they should and some times games are won against the head. Offaly needed this more than Tipp and they should have won but sport doesn't always go that way.
Credit has to be given to Tipperary for the way they took this title. With five minutes to go, they should have been a beaten team. They were down to fourteen men after Damien Corbett was shown a red card for flinging his hurl at Cathal Robinson, who was about to shoot in front of goals. It looked a certain goal, Corbett's stroke was just not nice to witness and that is the most charitable way I can find of putting that. Apart from the obvious unsportsmanlike strike, his hurl hit Robinson on the head and it could have resulted in serious injury but he will be feted as a hero in Tipperary this week - without him doing what he did, they would possibly have been beaten, though the Kinnitty man still got his shot in before falling to the ground.
Incidentally, whatever about Tipp making a hero out of Corbett, a tiny minority of Offaly supporters were guilty of trying to make an “icon” out of a colleague after the game, who had certainly done nothing heroic! Footage of a supporter being led away by gardai after an incident after the game circulated freely and it was bemusing to hear some supporters shouting “good man” at him while the sight of others congratulating him and looking for pictures with him in a Tullamore public house on Sunday evening was even worse! A couple of supporters had confronted the referee after the game and there is no place for that in the GAA, no matter how high emotions may be. And that is enough to say on that particular one.
As it was, Corbett's sending off should have been enough for Offaly to win the game. Adam Screeney pointed the free and that put Offaly six points up, 1-15 to 0-12 with seven minutes left. They still held that lead over three minutes later when Tipp got three in quick succession but another Screeney free, right on the 60th minute, put four in it again and it looked all over.
Tipp, however, displayed tremendous character. They refused to surrender and they got 1-2 without reply for a win that they really didn't deserve but that won't matter one little bit to them. They won and no matter what way Offaly analyse the game, that won't change.
The final free in has been debated fiercely in Offaly. It was a free in but just before that Niall Furlong went down as he tried to gather a loose ball. It looked a free out all day long and that incident in particular resulted in referee Shane Hynes coming in for ferocious criticism from Offaly supporters, not to mention observers from far outside the county boundaries. Having looked at the incident several times since, it is not as clearcut as it looked on first viewing but there was contact by the Tipperary player, it wasn't shoulder to shoulder, it was with the hip and leg and it should have been a free out. If the free out had been given, not one Tipperary person would have complained and it was a huge moment in the game, even if the contact was quite minimal.
It is the type of incident that happens a dozen time in every hurling game. Some times a free is given but many times it isn't. That is the way hurling is refereed by most officials and it is the way hurling people want it. They want play to be allowed run, rucks to develop, physicality to be allowed, they don't want every free given. I don't know when I was last at a hurling game that there weren't at least ten clear frees not given, and that is being charitable.
The way hurling is refereed does add to its attraction, the entertainment it provides and Offaly were a victim of that on Sunday.
Firstly the referee was a factor in Offaly's defeat and not just because of that last free in. As Offaly got on top in the last twenty minutes, he gave Tipperary some soft frees and these did help keep them alive. Tipp got frees a bit easier than Offaly in the last quarter, though they also got a couple of soft ones earlier, and the sending off was a particular talking point. Hynes did well here as he consulted with officials to determine exactly what happened and make sure he got the right man. He was also right in not giving a penalty as Robinson was outside the area when the hurl was thrown.
The referee, however, wasn't the only factor in Offaly's loss. Reading social media posts and listening to people on Sunday evening, you would think he had handcuffed Offaly and then picked their pockets. As alcohol further fuelled some people's ire on Sunday evening, Hynes was lucky he stayed away from Tullamore and Birr or he would have been at risk of lynching. Perspective and balance were in short supply and that is no good to the players.
It is very important that the victim card is not overplayed. It was certainly been over used by a lot of people on Sunday evening and it's time to stop doing that. It's counter-productive, it stops Offaly looking at themselves and their own role in not winning and it is doing a disservice to the players.
The bottom line is that Offaly didn't win a game that they were the better side in, played the best hurling in and should have won. There were a myriad of factors in this and the referee was only one of those.
Any controversial free, given or not given, at the end of a game leading to a match winning goal will always occupy a pivotal part of a post match analysis. The truth is, these type of frees are ten a penny in any game and if you want to analyse one of those, you must look at a whole lot more as well.
These Offaly hurlers will grow and learn from this defeat but only if they look at themselves and their own part in what happened them. If everyone is telling them that they were robbed and the referee did them, it will allow them to escape the very necessary self reflection that is needed.
And Offaly did play their own part in not winning this game. There were individual misses, balls fumbled and not gathered, mistakes that contributed at crucial stages and the last free was not well defended – there were frees missed, chances put wide and passes misplaced. If you analyse all of them, and some of these had as big a bearing as the late free, then you start to hang young players out to dry for unfortunate reasons and absolutely no one wants that – especially as some of those players were a major factor in Offaly reaching the final and going so close on the day. Mistakes and misses are part and parcel of the game but only get truly discussed after very narrow defeats, as do frees such as that last one.
Offaly led by 1-10 to 0-7 at half time but had ample chances to have been further ahead. Apart from their misses, their shot selection was way off at times in the first half as they had pops from places where it would have been better to look for a team mate or just send the ball in. That, however, is the very nature of a competive, physical contact team sport – you have a fraction of a second to make up your mind, you operate on instinct and sometimes things work, sometimes they don't. And it really is no different with a referee!
Six points up against fourteen men with three minutes left on the clock, four points up in injury time are positions that every team wants to be in an All-Ireland final. Yet Offaly couldn't close out the deal. Why was this? That of course is impossible to say with certainty but Offaly players were out on their feet late on. A few were cramping up and unfortunately their legs began to go at the real wrong time.
The same thing happened in the Leinster final against Laois when Offaly had enough of a margin to get home. It didn't happen in the All-Ireland semi-final against Clare but it happened again here and it does raise questions. It could simply be that they got tired and wrecked because they absolutely emptied the tank and just had nothing more to give – and if this is the case, then hats should be taken off to every single Offaly player. They also lost their shape in the second half, even before the sending off as players drifted back and this invited Tipperary onto them.
Tipperary also used their bench much better. That was probably because they had greater options but they brought in all five subs, including two just after the sending off when they needed fresh legs. Offaly brought in three subs and only after injuries or players cramping up – Cillian Martin was a big loss when he went off after 43 minutes as his work rate would make you tired even looking at him.
Offaly didn't close out the game when it was there for them and this is a regular problem with Offaly teams. They also left the door open for Roscommon in the All-Ireland U-20 football final last year when they were also clearly the better team but were almost hauled in at the end. U-20 manager Declan Kelly spoke about this as they received their All-Ireland medals just a couple of weeks ago. “In fairness to fellows, they played well, though they made it hard. I don't think Offaly win matches well. It is sort of the nature of us really at all grades. We keep it nice and tight and we sort of fall over the line with a few minutes to go. You are probably the better team but we keep the auld heart rates ticking anyway if nothing else.”
In that case, Offaly were the better team and fell over the line: in this case, they were also the better team but came up a fraction short and that is a bitter pill to swallow.
This defeat, however, does not define this Offaly team. In fact, it could very well be the making of them, though it is a great pity that they didn't win and the considerable benefits of another All-Ireland final are lost to the county.
They have brought real pride to the county. They have captured the Offaly imagination in a way that an Offaly hurling team hasn't managed since the 1990s. They have been quite brilliant and their home county got behind them – the crowds at the Leinster final, All-Ireland semi-final and the 20,000 plus in Nowlan Park on Sunday were extraordinary for minor grades. The way in which this team excited and thrilled Offaly supporters is demonstrated by the fact that they vastly outnumbered the Clare and Tipp support in the last two game.
Incidentally, the crowd and magical atmosphere in Kilkenny on Sunday completely vindicated the GAA's decision to have these minor games as stand alone fixtures rather than a curtain raiser to a big game in Croke Park – where the crowd would have been lost and tickets would have been scarce if it was played with an All-Ireland final.
You had to feel so sorry for the Offaly squad and backroom team. It was hard not to cry after their defeat and they were in such hard luck. The way these young players have conducted themselves in victory and defeat is a credit to themselves and their families – the sight of them signing autographs for young fans on Sunday evening and Monday even though grief was etched on their faces will be one of the many enduring memories from a memorable year.
Social media can be an ugly place when misused and there was an element of this with Offaly supporters on Sunday as they lambasted the referee – criticism is fine, once expressed properly and with perspective, but some of this went too far and was too emotively expressed. However, it also showed its value over the weekend as a beautifully provocative address by an American coach, Luigi “Geno” Auriemma went viral – I had to google him to discover that he is an Amercian colleges basketball coach who has been the head coach of the University of Connecticut Huskies womens' basketball team since 1985.
Auriemma noted that recruiting enthusiastic children is harder than it has ever been. “Every kid watches TV and whatever sport they watch, it doesn't matter, what they see is people just being really cool so they think that is how they are going to act. And they haven't even figured out which foot to use as a pivot foot and they are going to act as really good players. You see it all the time so recruiting kids that are really upbeat, loving life, loving the game, have this tremendous appreciation for when their team mates do something well, that's really hard.
“So on our team, we put a huge premium on body language and if you're body language is bad, you will never get in the game, ever. I don't care how good you are.”
He talked about a player he had benched for a game a couple of years ago and was told it was to motivate her. “No it wasn't. She was acting like a 12 year old so I put her on the bench and made her sit there. It doesn't matter on our team. Other coaches might say you can do that because you have three All-Americans. I get that, I understand that but I would rather lose than watch kids play the way some kids play. I would rather lose than they are allowed to get away with whatever. And they are always thinking about themselves. Me, me, me. I didn't score so why should I be happy. I didn't get enough minutes so why should I be happy. That's the world we live in today unfortunately and kids check the scoreboard some times because they are going to get yelled at by their parents if they don't enough points. Don't get me started. When I look at my team they know this. When I'm watching a game, I'm checking what's going on over on the bench and if someone is asleep over there, if someone doesn't care or is not engaged in the game, they will never get in the game. And they know that, they know I am not kidding.”
As I listened to that on Monday morning, the similarities with Offaly minor hurlers immediately sprung to mind. In an era when young players face new, much different challenges than my generation did growing up, when parents and relations will make no bones about confronting team managements if they feel their son isn't getting his proper dues or encouraging them to walk away – this is something that has to stop -, this Offaly minor hurling team have been different.
They have brought a ferocity of work rate, a collective honesty and a level of intensity, pace and ability to the table that is rare – certainly rare in the Offaly GAA world and even more so in hurling teams in the past decade plus. The work rate of this team has been just phenomenal, breathtaking and it may have been the reason they died on their feet in the closing minutes last Sunday. It really was something special, I have never seen a minor team to work as hard as them and even in defeat, this Offaly team have raised the bar and shown the way forward for every other player in the county. That is the biggest tribute that can be paid to them.
And for them, the challenge now is to pick themselves up and show their class at U-20 level. One team alone won't transform Offaly hurling but this team has changed things and they can do so even further. The one blemish on Offaly's record in the absence of the All-Ireland U-21/20 Hurling Championship and this team will have the potential to rectify that in three years time. They will only do so by continuing on the road they are on, working hard, developing their physicality and strength – and they will only do this by taking the lessons on board from Sunday, accepting their own role in what happened and not seeking scapegoats: something which is coming from outside the group rather than inside!
There is no reason why they can't do this if they apply themselves and that is now their target. Sunday's defeat was very similar to the 1995 All-Ireland final defeat by Clare in that it was a game Offaly should have won but don't forget that team won one against the head against Limerick in 1995 and again in 1998. That is sport and over the course of a players' career, these things generally balance out.
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