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15 Aug 2022

THE MAN BEHIND THE WIRE: A tough call but 2022 results dictated Offaly decision to seek new hurling management

The man behind the wire: A tough call but 2022 results dictated Offaly decision to seek new hurling management

Michael Fennelly

OFFALY'S senior hurling Joe McDonagh Cup campaign ended on May 21 and it was over two months later when the County Board informed Michael Fennelly that his services were no longer wanted as manager.

That was a long time. Too long really and last week's announcement that they were seeking new management did not come as a surprise to anyone in the county.

Yet the plug wasn't pulled and Fennelly actually went to the trouble of attending the Offaly senior hurling double bill between Ballinamere and Coolderry and Shinrone and Seir Kieran in Birr last Saturday week. A couple of days later he was informed by the County Board that they were seeking new management and he will no doubt have been disappointed at the outcome.

While the decision won't have come as a big shock to the former Kilkenny star, it was probably not the best way of doing business. It was a decision that could have been made within a couple of weeks of Offaly exiting the Joe McDonagh Cup with a defeat against Carlow and the delay may have given Fennelly the confidence that he would get another year.

Yet, it could also have been a sign of Offaly GAA chairman Michael Duignan and his fellow officers engaging in serious soul searching as they tried to determine the best path forward.

It was not a cut and dried, a clearcut decision. Fennelly had done three years as manager and normally that is sufficient time to give a manager but it was different on this occasion. Two of those years were disrupted by Covid with collective training barred for long periods, games played without spectators. He simply couldn't do the work that he would have liked with the players for extended periods in those years.

It meant that there was a case to be made for giving Fennelly one more year and there is no doubt that they gave this serious consideration. It may have been a factor in the delay in the decision as they consulted with people far and wide.

John Maughan's reign as Offaly senior football manager also ended this year but that was a different situation. The Mayo man had served four years as manager and he had steadied the ship as he came into the role after a positively shocking 2018, during which Kerry man, Stephen Wallace's reign as manager was ended in mid season. He helped raise the bar in the county, telling the players what they needed to do to be top class footballers.

It worked to some extent but four years was a fair time span to give him. After a disappointing 2022, his time had come to its natural end and there was little appetite either with Maughan or in Offaly for a fourth year. He had done as much as he could, brought the county and players as far as he could and the time was ripe for change.

It was a different story with Fennelly and there is a lingering impression of unfinished business. Fennelly showed a genuine interest in bringing Offaly hurling out of the doldrums. He really wanted to improve the players in all ways and he had a lot going for him.

He got Offaly hurling in a very low place, the Christy Ring Cup and Division 2A of the National Hurling League. Confidence was shot and the team was a country mile off where they needed to be. Straight away, he set about working on their skill levels, their physicality and the mental side of the game.

It was no one year project. Offaly were in a different league compared to the top tier counties and bridging this gap was something that had to start at a much younger level. Yet he could only work with the players that he had, he couldn't turn the clock back to when these players were fourteen years of age in Offaly development squads or clubs. And he tried so hard to improve the systems in the county – to get players training right, eating right, living right, thinking right. He was big into the mental side of preparation and as one of the best hurlers of his generation, he was able to provide a clear example himself of what it takes.

His message was on the ball and his focus was always on the long term – giving young players their chances and building for the future.

He would have got a shock to his system from day one with some of the individual and collective performances and Fennelly worked very hard to raise the bar.

There was a perception out there that Offaly weren't in a strong enough place for some of what he was trying to do. That the current squad needed a more basic message and that Fennelly and Offaly were not quite the right fit.

It would have taken a leap of faith for Offaly to give him another year. They would have had to buy into the message he was giving and trust that he was bringing them on the right road. It was a leap that they could have taken and again there was a case for doing this but it would also have been a brave one and it would not have gone down well in all quarters.

Unfortunately for Fennelly, the 2022 results dictated his fate. His three years had provided a mixed bag. In his first year in charge, Offaly didn't win the Christy Ring Cup as they lost to Down in a penalty shootout in Newry.

That year had been nearly written off with Covid and they performed much better in 2021. They played their best hurling that year and there was clear evidence that a corner was being turned. Some players displayed quite significant improvements, playing the best hurling of their careers. They performed particularly well in the National Hurling League, getting promotion from Division 2A in very impressive style. Significantly, they had beaten four Joe McDonagh Cup teams in the league, Carlow, Down, Kerry and Meath, and there was a palpable buzz in the camp.

Offaly continued their form in the Christy Ring Cup as they sauntered to promotion. It was a particularly weak competition in 2021 as Offaly just had to beat Sligo, Wicklow and Derry to take the title. Offaly's score tallies show how weak it was – they scored 2-39 against Sligo on a day in which they only sprang into life in the second half, they got 6-30 against Wicklow and 0-41 against Derry. It was not real hurling but at least Offaly were back up into the second tier.

2022 provided a rude awakening. Offaly were in with the big boys in Division 1 of the National Hurling League and they got some real bad beatings. Galway, Cork, Clare and Limerick all put them to the sword. They had competed well against Clare for a while and their best performance was in a defeat by Wexford.

Those results, however, would not have cost Fennelly his job. No one expected anything else and it was clear to everyone that the jump from Division 2A to Division 1 was too big for Offaly at this stage.

From here on, however, Offaly's season nose dived. They were very poor in the relegation play off against Antrim and they never really got going in the Joe McDonagh Cup.

They were unlucky to lose to Antrim in Belfast in their first game and they stayed on track for a final place with wins over Meath, Down and Kerry. However, Offaly were unconvincing in these games, living on their wits and it all fell apart at the seams in their last game against Carlow.

A 0-22 to 0-17 defeat put Offaly out and left their manager on very shaky ground. It was a strange year for Offaly. There were regular changes made to the team and they just never got going. The reasons for this are not obvious. Offaly were playing a higher standard of competition in 2022 but the impression that they went backwards is impossible to escape. At the very best, they stood still but their displays in the Joe McDonagh Cup were not what was needed.

Whether any other manager can do any better remains to be seen. While there is exciting young talent coming up from the minor team, one squad alone won't change things for the county. Fennelly's message about what Offaly needs to do at all levels is correct but his only role was as the senior hurling manager.

The 2022 results means that the County Board decision does not represent a miscarriage of justice. Michael Fennelly needed Offaly to get to the Joe McDonagh Cup final and compete well, even if they lost to Antrim, to get another year. If they had done that, he would have been back and they should have made the final. That didn't happen and you can see why the County Board are going down a different road but the new appointment will be vitally important.

It has to lead to improvement and it is hard to know what is achievable in this regard. Having taken so long to make the decision, it is possible that the board have sounded out potential candidates and have something up their sleeve.

There has been speculation linking Clare man Davy Fitzgerald with the job. There is no substance to that and County Board chairman Michael Duignan has not spoken to him. Fitzgerald can be a controversial figure and there would be plenty of opposition to him getting the job. It might not be a bad thing for Offaly, however. He could very possibly get them to win the Joe McDonagh Cup and he would certainly bring great life to the county.

There is an impression that Fitzgerald does well with counties for a couple of years but that players get burnt out in this.

He could be what Offaly needs, however, it is unlikely to happen and it will be very interesting to see who the new man is – there are no outstanding candidates within Offaly and it will be more than likely another outside man.

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