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05 Oct 2022

The Man Behind the Wire: Spate of walkovers by traditional football clubs is very serious issue for Offaly GAA

The Man Behind the Wire: Spate of walkovers by traditional football clubs is very serious issue for Offaly GAA

Shannonbridge celebrating victory in the 2019 IFC final.

IT has not been a good week for the Offaly football championships. The concessions of walkovers by a number of clubs in the past week plus paints a very worrying picture.

The fact that some of these walkovers have been conceded by very strong, important and traditional football clubs increases the mood of concern. It is something that cannot be brushed under the carpet. It must be met straight on – firstly by the clubs involved but also the County Board who must take a pro-active role in bringing this to a head, seeing what the problems are and seeing what they can do to help.

Last weekend St Rynagh's conceded a walkover to Bracknagh in the Senior “B” Football Championship while Doon handed Ballinagar the points in the Junior Football Championship.

It follows quickly on the back of Shannonbridge not fulfilling an Intermediate Football Championship fixture against Ferbane a couple of weeks ago.

The Shannonbridge situation is a small bit different but not sufficiently so as to be ignored. They had sought a postponement of that game on the August bank holiday weekend, citing an outbreak of Covid in their camp. They tried to get the game refixed. When the Competitions Control Committee did the only thing they could do and awarded the points to Ferbane, Shannonbridge took up their option of an appeal to the Offaly Hearings Committee.

That was dealt with last Thursday evening and Shannonbridge duly lost, unable to prove that the Competitions Control Committee had misapplied a rule in their decision. Shannonbridge will not have been surprised at the outcome – the minute they told the CCC that they would not be fulfilling their fixture against Ferbane, they were on very treacherous icy ground.

Postponements had not been granted for Covid outbreaks when games were allowed to be played during the pandemic's peak years and they couldn't be granted now that the virus is in a lull – never mind any other reasons that may have been factored in.

In fairness to Shannonbridge, they regrouped and they fielded a team for the closing round against Daingean last week. A win would still have put Shannonbridge through and they competed very well in a 1-15 to 1-12 defeat. That is to Shannonbridge's credit but the bottom line is that they didn't play a game they were fixed to and they are in the same boat as St Rynagh's and Doon.

There have also been walkovers in underage championships and the fact that these have been by some of Offaly's most powerful footballing areas adds to a growing sense of crisis.

St Broughan's have conceded games in the Minor Football Championship while Gracefield have given walkovers in the U-15 Football Competition.

It is possible for clubs to run into problems at underage grades. There can be years where numbers in a particular grade are a big problem and then if there are any absentees for holidays, illness or other reasons, they are in trouble.

It is, however, still a major issue. St Broughan's and Gracefield entered those competitions and have been unable to fulfil their fixtures. Both areas are absolutely crucial to the well-being and development of Offaly football.

St Broughan's is in Clonbullogue parish, catering for players from Bracknagh, Clonbullogue and Walsh Island clubs. Some of Offaly's greatest footballers, mainly from Walsh Island which is now struggling for numbers, have come from this parish.

Gracefield have provided greats such as Tom (The Chunk) McEvoy, John Smith, Pat and Mick Fitzgerald and Padraig Dunne. Donie Hanlon was the captain when Offaly won their first Leinster senior football title in 1960, his brother Jimmy played occasionally throughout the 1960s. They may be a border town but they have a large population and Offaly needs a strong Gracefield.

St Rynagh's, Shannonbridge and Doon are all very important to Offaly football. They are all located in the same general west Offaly area. This is powerful football territory and Offaly needs players coming from here at all grades. They won't have players from these clubs every year but the emergence of players from these areas has always been a great asset to Offaly teams.

Some of the county's greatest footballers have emerged from this wide area. Ferbane is the capital of that west Offaly stronghold but St Rynagh's, Shannonbridge and Doon have all contributed powerfully, along with players from clubs a bit more north-east, Ballycumber and Erin Rovers.

St Rynagh's Football Club is based in Cloghan. Formed in the 1960s when Banagher parish came together, they went with a structure with a difference. Two separate clubs bearing the same name was established. St Rynagh's Football Club looks after the big ball, St Rynagh's hurling club is based in Banagher. They have separate officers, run their own finances and are separate clubs but they pick from the same pool of players.

St Rynagh's Hurling Club were the big winners of the deal. They embarked on a run of phenomenal success from the mid 1960s, dominating Offaly hurling, changing the game in the county and they were instrumental in the big 1980s breakthroughs. And that is part of St Rynagh's Football Club's problems, part of the reason they found difficulty on Friday evening.

While players from Banagher have served them very well over the years, there have been plenty of times when they have not have every player they would have liked. Not only that but there are players from Cloghan who have developed a great, powerful love for hurling. They have been outstanding performers for St Rynagh's and Offaly. Martin Hanamy, captain of the 1994 All-Ireland senior hurlers is the perfect example of this, though he nearly always togged out for St Rynagh's Football Club during his career. There have been plenty of others.

Doon's situation is a bit different. Where as St Rynagh's have the pick of a huge sprawling parish with a decent population – they have a good sized town in Banagher and a decent sized village in Cloghan -, Doon is an essentially rural area located up against the Westmeath border. They have punched above their weight for a lot of the time, both in terms of the players they have produced and the level they have competed at.

Two of Offaly's greatest defenders, John Egan and Mick Ryan were from Doon, though Ryan played most of his football elsewhere. Kieran Claffey was a midfielder on the Offaly side that won the All-Ireland Senior Football Championship in 1971 – he also transferred out of the club – while Vinny Claffey was a superb performer for Offaly in the 1990s as well as playing in the 1980s and 2000s. He was brilliant during Doon's golden era, an unstoppable force of nature as they competed well at senior football level for a few years in the 1990s into the 2000s.

Population would be an issue in Doon and Shannonbridge while Doon's case is also different in that it is junior football. Walkovers in it are still very wrong but it is Offaly's fourth tier, essentially junior “B” football dressed up under another name – it would have been junior “B” before the senior “B” was reintroduced a few years ago. Walkovers at this level are not unusual but they are in the higher grades, where they are particularly unpalatable.

It is important to acknowledge that the clubs are doing their best and none of them would have conceded walkovers lightly. The walkovers could be once offs and no doubt St Rynagh's, Shannonbridge and Doon will field in their coming relegation play offs. They had genuine problems but it doesn't change the fact that it is wrong. It damages championships, it undermines their integrity and it just shouldn't happen. Clubs going back a grade via walkovers is a very serious problem if that happens.

It is just fortunate that the consequences were not a lot more severe. In groups where a walkover is conceded, scoring difference can't be used in the events of ties. This could have resulted in play offs being needed and championships being delayed.

That would have been a scandalous outcome but thankfully, the groups had developed in such a way that it didn't happen – St Rynagh's and Doon were destined for the relegation play off, irrespective of their result in the last round.

The walkovers also damage the opposition they were to play. Bracknagh and Ballinagar have qualified for the senior “B” and junior semi-finals. They now have a wait of six weeks without a game and that will leave them sitting ducks when they do play. That is not fair or right and every club that enters a championship has a responsibility to more than themselves.

The concession of a walkover by St Rynagh's is the one that commands the most attention. They have produced some great, tough footballers over the years – Greg Hughes was a superb full back in the 1960s, Ger Rafferty a rock steady defender for most of the 2000s and their players have featured on Offaly teams in most eras. Apart from that, however, they are competing in senior “B”, Offaly's second tier. They are one of the top sixteen football clubs in Offaly, they have competed at senior level occasionally over the years, even if they have always been swimming against the tide here. Senior “B” is just too high of a standard for any club to be conceding a walkover and it will lead to some serious soul searching in the club.

You have to feel sympathy for St Rynagh's. The same faces have been doing jobs for a long time and they will be hurting at this. They need to be encouraged but the club also has to look at itself. Quite a few people have remarked since on the underage model in St Rynagh's in recent days. St Rynagh's have backboned a group team called Cloghan and they have enjoyed some excellent underage football success. They have picked players from a number of clubs across the wider south Offaly area, though the big majority have come from St Rynagh's. The scope of their pick has annoyed some other clubs who feel it is too big, though some of these have the pick of huge parishes and shouldn't be complaining too much. There is lots of potential benefits in players enjoying underage success, even with outside help. It has been defended by St Rynagh's but a question has been voiced in recent days about them playing players from other clubs at the expense of their own. That has nothing really to do with Friday's walkover and only St Rynagh's officers truly know what is going on in their area but it is one of the big factors that they have to look at in the wake of the walkover. St Rynagh's have also had the use of permission players from Lusmagh on their adult football teams. That is okay but there may be times when Lusmagh players aren't available as they concentrate on hurling.

It is easy to talk about potential solutions and operating the model of other counties – where the championship is not fixed out in full before hand and instead first round winners play each other with first round losers clashing in round 2. This would keep almost every team alive into the final round and it could be considered but it won't solve the fundamental problem:

That some of Offaly's greatest football clubs and areas have conceded walkovers in big championship games this year. That just can't be ignored and it would be no bad thing for County Board chairman Michael Duignan and officers to get these clubs into a room for a very frank discussion.

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