Club captains launching the Offaly SFC at sponsors, the Tullamore Court Hotel.
DESPITE missing some of their brightest young talent, Tullamore remain the team to beat and are the starter's favourites for the Offaly Senior Football Championship.
Worthy winners of the Dowling Cup last year, grinding Rhode down in a replayed decider, Tullamore are very well equipped to retain the title this year.
They are desperately unlucky in that they are down three of their brightest prospects, three outstanding performers on the Offaly side that won the All-Ireland U-20 Football Championship last year.
Oisin Keenan-Martin and John Furlong are definitely out for the season while Cormac Egan's prospects of playing are in the slim category, though he could feature at the latter end of the campaign – Tullamore won't be risking any player who isn't 100% right.
Keenan-Martin has suffered the curse of the modern GAA player, a cruciate injury while Furlong has been told to take a six months break to give a troublesome hip injury a chance to repair – the brilliant defender had initially had a groin problem but it has since been diagosed as coming from the hip and he needs complete rest.
The loss of such outstanding talent represents a grevious blow to Tullamore. With them on board, they would be red hot favourites for the Dowling Cup but they are the one side in Offaly who have the depth in strength and pool of resources to cope with such absentees. Obviously, the replacements will not be of the same standard as the injured trio but the loss of three such key players is not as fatal to Tullamore as it would be to almost everyone else.
Yet history weighs heavily against Tullamore. They have not managed to retain the championship since 1926 when they completed three in a row and that is a major blemish on the record of Offaly's biggest club. It won't affect the current players as such but it is a huge factor for the wider club and it is one they would love to remedy.
The indications are that Tullamore are in good health. They looked good when retaining the Division 1 Football League recently and they will take beating. They play very effectively to a system, do the simple thing well and are so steady.
There are, however, a few teams capable of knocking Tullamore off their perch with Rhode, Edenderry and Ferbane all having realistic prospects. It will be a big surprise if the champions emerge from outside this quartet and the championship is fairly wide open.
Rhode and Edenderry also have their problems. Rhode's injury situation is as critical as Tullamore's and worse in ways – their absent players are more experienced, Rhode depend more on them and they don't have the same supply line coming up behind them.
Niall Darby also suffered a cruciate injury recently and that will rule him out for the campaign. He is a huge loss, one of the driving forces, for a club facing up to a new reality where they have a very realistic chance but are no longer title favourites.
Eoin Rigney got a cruciate operation last December and with Darby out, Rhode's need for him is greater than ever. The cruciate, however, generally entails a 9 months to a year recovery process and Rigney will only be involved at the latter stages of the championship, if at all. Despite that, Rhode command the utmost of respect.
Rhode also went through an unexpected managerial change recently. Portlaoise man Malachy McNulty was jailed recently after pleading guilty to stealing money from a school to feed a gambling addiction. He has been replaced by a local man, Declan Gorman, who has managed Rhode previously and will run the show very well.
Niall McNamee can win games on his own and they have two of the best club footballers in Offaly in Anton Sullivan and Ruari McNamee. Rhode are well capable of winning but there are new doubts about their ability to dominate as the past.
Ferbane have a potentially excellent team. They were poor against Tullamore in the recent league final but that is probably not an accurate reflection of where they are. Cian Johnson is back playing in their attack. He went off injured against Tullamore but is okay and had been scoring freely in earlier games. He is a huge asset to Ferbane and with other county standard players in Cathal Flynn and Joe Maher, they will talk to any side in the county.
Edenderry also have genuine aspirations. Cian Farrell is also recovering from a cruciate operation. It could be near the end of the championship before he gets back and Edenderry probably won't win the Dowling Cup without this brilliant forward but they are contenders.
The championship is drawn in two groups of four with the top team going into semi-finals and the next two into two quarter-finals – the bottom team in each group meets in the relegation play off.
Group 1 consists of Tullamore, Ferbane, Shamrocks and Cappincur. Tullamore and Ferbane are red hot favourites to progress, though both are capable of slow starts and putting pressure on themselves. Shamrocks look to be slightly ahead of Cappincur at the moment but there isn't much between these.
Rhode, Durrow, Edenderry and Clara are in group 2. Like group 1, there are two clear favourites in Rhode and Edenderry, even though Durrow went very well last year, reaching the semi-final.
Clara won the senior B last year and their target will be a quarter-final place but they remain in transition and the doubts about them are significant.
It should be another great championship and there will be plenty of great games. Tullamore can break their long duck of not retaining the title.
Verdict – Tullamore.
First round games
Ferbane v Cappincur, Friday July 15 in Clara at 8pm; Verdict – Ferbane.
Tullamore v Shamrocks, Friday July 15 in O'Connor Park at 8pm; Verdict – Tullamore.
Durrow v Clara, Saturday July 16 in Cappincur at 8pm; Verdict – draw.
Edenderry v Rhode, Saturday July 16 in O'Connor Park at 8pm; Verdict – Rhode.
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