Offaly's Eoin Carroll said it best on the pitch after their win over Laois on Sunday - “We were sick of opening up papers and seeing 'where's such and such and when are they back,' and we thought, why aren't people talking about the group that are here.”
The Cappincur man kicked some inspirational scores that would be at home in Croke Park in August or September, and his comments summed up the spirit of this current crop of players who were so callously questioned just a few weeks ago.
Aside from the victory over Laois, Offaly have had a tough year and the talk had been about the likes of McNamee and the rest of those missing from the team sheet. Like Eoin Carroll said, “that's the way it is for every team,” and he's right.
Talking about weaknesses or perceived weaknesses, like who is missing, is part of an excuse culture that has crept into Offaly's psyche. It's always been 'what might have been if he was there,' or 'maybe this and maybe that.' But forget all that – it's rubbish.
Eoin Carroll was there on Sunday; Nigel Dunne was there, two goal hero Sean Doyle and others, and they stood up when many people thought they wouldn't. They played in front of a couple of hundred supporters just a couple of weeks ago in O'Connor Park against Tipperary. The bookies made Laois favourites and pundits thought our lads would wilt, drop off into Division 4 without so much as a whimper, and nobody outside the county would have bat an eyelid if they did. And plenty within the county would have rolled those eyelids with indifference too.
The players and manager were written off after the defeat to Armagh, and to be fair to those writing them off, a 30-point margin is not to be ignored either way and was always going to set tongues wagging. Delegates stood up at county board meetings and beat their chests and called for Pat Flanagan's head on a platter. The players' commitment was called into question – were they good enough, are they playing for Pat Flanagan?
Pat himself said on Sunday that he hopes no one ever questions that again, and I think he's right and deserves better than snide remarks about 'losing the dressing room' or his team lacking ferocity and bite when it mattered. Donie Kingston came at that Offaly defence time and time again, and at any point they could have rolled over. They could have given in to tired legs and weary minds and thought of all the naysayers who said they were doomed after that trip to the North early in the campaign.
The point is they didn't; nor did they dwell on the fact that numerous key players were missing. Niall McNamee, the main man for many years, out with a stomach injury, Anton Sullivan away with the Army and so on. The players on Sunday could have limped out and down to Division 4 and perhaps taken consolation from those setbacks, if they were so inclined and if the doubters were right.
The fact that they were wrong and the lads didn't fall away harmlessly and that Graham Guilfoyle stood on the pitch breathless afterwards speaking to local radio about the heart of his teammates and the fight is something to be admired and supported. The problems with the county board are one thing, and I think this team stayed up in spite of those issues, of which there are plenty. The first sign of trouble is met with calls for the manager to go, and that sets in motion another cycle of a manager coming in, not getting enough time, and the players being disrupted once he's sent packing again.
That gets us nowhere and has done for decades at this stage. The only thing served by that type of behaviour is the egos of lads sitting behind a table once a month to bang the table and blow their trumpets. All that bullish bluster certainly does nothing for the guys giving up so much of their lives and actually going out on the pitch in green, white and gold.
On the one hand, we shouldn't be jumping up and down about barely surviving in Division 3, having nearly been promoted to Division 2 last season, but give the camp space to mould into a better team. Young talent is coming through and the U21 and senior set-up have a good link there between both management teams, and it's proving fruitful. The likes of James Lalor shone for both teams this year and blooding talent like that can only bode well going forward.
Westmeath won't be looking forward to coming to Tullamore in June after the gutsy display from Offaly on Sunday. There was an edge on display on the day and a bit of guile that had been missing for so long. There isn't the same reliance on just one player as there once was, and instead a team, a real unit, is burgeoning. It needs to be nurtured now and given support from county board level to continue in that vein. Give Pat Flanagan a chance, because there is no denying now, that when their backs were to the wall, this team of players played for him in the last three games of the league with absolute grit.
Supporters need to be realistic of course, but the team gave the county a lot to be proud of on Sunday, and the performance taught us to ignore the spaces left behind by those missing, and focus on the guys filling them.
Uibh Fhaili Abu!
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